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Understanding the Ins and Outs of PLA in the Modern College Environment

The EvoLLLution | Understanding the Ins and Outs of PLA in the Modern College Environment
As increasing numbers of adult learners are enrolling in two-year colleges, it’s critical to take a closer look at policies and approaches to recognizing prior learning with academic credit.
Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) isn’t new by any means. A model originally tied to apprenticeships, PLA was further developed in the years after World War II as a way of granting credit to veterans for their military training. However, the last few years have seen a remarkable upsurge in colleges and universities awarding credit for prior learning.

There are a number of reasons for this increase. For one, it would be difficult to downplay the significant role lawmakers have played. In 2012 the Obama Administration intentionally encouraged a nation-wide expansion of PLA when it stipulated that $2 billion in new Department of Labor grants would require colleges to incorporate PLA: “To determine the most effective and accelerated path toward credential attainment, applicants must plan to perform competency-based assessments and award credit for prior learning and experiences.”[1] The year before that, Washington State passed House Bill 1522 which required higher education institutions and state agencies to increase the number of students who receive credit for prior learning as well as increase the types of credits awarded for prior learning. This bill, which required colleges to develop specific measures and regularly report on their progress, was a direct result of a 2010 recommendation report by WA’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

In addition to the prodding from policymakers, private foundations (such as Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations) and nonprofit organizations (such as the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL) also contributed to an upturn in PLA with their large advocacy and funding campaigns.

No less important for this popularity spike, however, has been the data connected with long-term PLA efforts. For instance, CAEL’s “Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success” report showed that graduation and persistence/retention rates are 2.5 times higher for students with PLA credit than for those without. Remarkably, these improved graduation rates hold true regardless of the institution’s size, level (two- or four-year), or control (public, non-profit, or for-profit) and even regardless of the individual student’s academic ability, GPA, age, gender, race/ethnicity, or eligibility for financial aid. Likewise, from a student perspective, PLA has proven to be both a time-saver (the time to degree completion for PLA earners is 29.6 months compared to 39.7 months for non-PLA earners) as well as a money-saver (an adult student who earns 15 credits from PLA applied to a degree saves $1,605 to $6,000 on tuition costs). This has been especially vital as tuition and fees have soared over the years.

Still, declining college enrollments might in the end be the primary motivator for intensified PLA efforts at colleges and universities across the U.S. The pool of high school graduates is small (most estimates put the number at three million), and competition for these “traditional” students is severe. However, there are 35-40 million adults (over 20 percent of American adults) with some college credit yet no degree.

As institutions continue trying to distinguish themselves and cater to this larger pool of potential students, I suspect we’ll see PLA become even more popular in the years to come.

Leveraging PLA to Stand Out to Prospective Learners

In their “Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success,” CAEL reported survey results that 91 percent of college and university administrator respondents believe students come to their institutions with technical training that had been learned on the job and can be assessed for college-level credit. 72 percent of the respondents also believe demand for PLA will continue to increase in the future.

Nevertheless, most institutions—two-year colleges in particular—reported that PLA options are not promoted or advocated by advisors or faculty or are simply not broad enough in scope to meet the needs of students. Developing and maintaining supportive and open policies around PLA can indeed be challenging, but there are a number of best practices that have proven to be successful when recruiting students.

While creating internal guidelines and databases around PLA is necessary, paying attention to an institution’s first points of contact—to the student-facing systems—is key when it comes to marketing PLA opportunities. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Is PLA at your institution visible, accessible, and transparent?
  • Is it predictable and standardized across departments and divisions?
  • Are faculty and academic advisors supportive and knowledgeable? (If not, perhaps dedicate a professional development day or training workshop to the topic.)
  • Does your institution have a webpage or online handbook dedicated to PLA?
  • Better yet, are you able to automatically enroll students directly into a Learning Management System (LMS) course or shell?

These are excellent channels for clearly defining PLA, outlining steps and timelines, explaining cost and fee structures, and providing updated contact information. As students deliberate on where to attend college, having a one-stop resource center—ideally online as well as on-campus—that clarifies procedures and assists students on the pathway from first inquiry through transcription is a considerable asset. Additionally, it’s critical to make sure to include relatable and compelling student success stories that demonstrate the benefits of PLA.

Authenticating Prior Learning for Credit

As colleges and universities authenticate learning that takes places outside the classroom, we must ensure assessment practices are consistent with academic integrity and accreditation criteria alike and that we’re not acting as mere credit brokers. Toward this end, there are a number of quality measures and practices institutions should follow. Many colleges and universities, including my own South Seattle College, adhere to the standards first proposed by CAEL in 1989:

  1. Credit or competencies are awarded only for evidence of learning, not for experience or time spent.
  2. Assessment is integral to learning because it leads to and enables future learning.
  3. Assessment is based on criteria for outcomes that are clearly articulated and shared among constituencies.
  4. The determination of credit awards and competence levels are made by appropriate subject matter and credentialing experts.
  5. Assessment advances the broader purpose of equity and access for diverse individuals and groups.
  6. Institutions proactively provide guidance and support for learners’ full engagement in the assessment process.
  7. Assessment policies and procedures are the result of inclusive deliberation and are shared with all constituencies.
  8. Fees charged for assessment are based on the services performed in the process rather than the credit awarded.
  9. All practitioners involved in the assessment process pursue and receive adequate training and continuing professional development for the functions they perform.
  10. Assessment programs are regularly monitored, evaluated and revised to respond to institutional and learner needs.

CAEL updated these standards in 2006 and again in 2017 to accommodate and keep pace with shifts in values, priorities, and larger institutional and social contexts. So, too, should institutions continually evolve and adapt to meet students’ needs.

For example, here at South Seattle College we regularly send faculty and staff to PLA conferences and training workshops conducted by the American Council on Education, the Washington Student Achievement Council, and CAEL, among others. Our PLA handbook, LMS shells, and databases of rubrics and completed assessments are organic and ever-changing. We have an ongoing PLA taskforce with cross-campus representation dedicated to review and implementation. Lastly, we’ve created, presented, shared, received feedback on, and revised PLA portfolio courses for our bachelor of applied science degree programs.

In all of these ways, we work hard to ensure we’re being intentional and strategic and that our assessment practices don’t stagnate with time. Yet by observing the above measures, we also safeguard PLA stability and consistency.

Managing Challenges Around Credit Transfer and PLA

One challenge many colleges have to consider when granting PLA is the possibility that credit granted will not help the student achieve their goals. If a learner enrolls with the intention of transferring their credits to a four-year institution, there is always the possibility that credit granted for prior learning will not be accepted by a four-year program or university.  A chief example is that of CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exams which are often accepted by two-year institutions but in many cases not by four-year ones. When this happens, students may harbor bad feelings toward both schools for failing to agree upon credit-granting policies. In the worst of cases, faculty, staff and administrators can in turn resent their colleagues at other institutions for being placed in an adversarial position vis-à-vis incoming and outgoing students.

One precautionary measure to this problem is close and regular involvement with one’s state council or commission on college and university relations. For instance, Washington State’s Intercollege Relations Commission facilitates transfer between institutions for all students pursuing baccalaureate degrees. Meeting regularly to disseminate information, this particular council is comprised of representatives from all of the state’s public institutions (and many of the independent ones) and works to simplify and expedite transfer articulations and higher education legislation around issues such as PLA.

In the end, there isn’t so much hesitation around conferring PLA credit as there is a keen awareness that we need to always be clear and upfront with students about the transferability of such credit. This is why it’s so important to have trained and knowledgeable faculty and advisors as well as easy-to-find guidelines and policies. Communication between and within institutions is critical.

– – – – References

[1] U.S. Department of Labor,, p. 5.

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