Visit Modern Campus

Better Prior Learning Assessment Can Be Higher Education’s Merit Badge

Better Prior Learning Assessment Can Be Higher Education’s Merit Badge
Higher education institutions must put more weight into prior learning assessment to expand accessibility for adult students. Photo by Douglas Muth.

In September of 2011 the MacArthur Foundation announced a grant to further the creation of digital badges, which are described as validated indicators of accomplishment or skill that can be earned in a variety of learning environments, both formal and informal. Not only can badges help people learn, they can also enable individuals to demonstrate what they have learned. Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that “badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate—as well as document and display—their skills.”

Now imagine that a student who had accumulated multiple badges applied for admission to a college or university and asked that these badges be evaluated and applied to degree requirements. What do you think the response would be from most institutions? Would they be willing to review these badges and apply them to degree requirements? What processes or hoops would student have to go through before these badges would be evaluated?

Badges are the latest iteration or recognition that learning—higher order learning—is not confined to classrooms and does indeed occur in multiple settings. But I would anticipate that the student who had collected multiple badges and who tried to use those badges to accelerate degree completion would be met by stern resistance from most colleges and universities.

Badges are another aspect of what is commonly included in Prior Learning Assessment—those formal and informal educational experiences that can be evaluated when a student seeks to complete a degree. The most frequently recognized form of PLA would include credits earned at accredited postsecondary institutions. But a more expansive and inclusive definition would also include credit-by-exam, ACE-evaluated military or corporate training, industry certifications, continuing education programs and, yes, badges.

Although students—particularly adult students—who seek to finish degrees bring with them a wealth of formal and informal prior learning, those students frequently confront considerable obstacles when trying to leverage that learning in a degree program.

It has been estimated that nearly 37 million Americans have some college credit but no degree (WICHE). But too often those students face formidable obstacles when they seek to apply their prior learning (credit and non-credit) to a degree. They are forced to demonstrate learning at the same lock step pace as those without their knowledge and background. They are forced to take courses that they don’t need. Students pay a high price for having to demonstrate—yet again—the learning that they have already acquired. They pay a high price in increased time to degree and therefore the cost of attaining that degree.

Institutions and policy makers must advocate for expanding access and increasing affordability to higher education for adult students by embracing more liberal and valid acceptance of prior learning. Failure to do results in reduced access and higher costs for adults. Moreover, failure to accept and recognize prior learning undercuts the confidence and motivation of adult students; it discourages students intellectually. Quite frankly, they are bored when having to take courses in which they already have gained knowledge and competency.

As a recent study by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has demonstrated, students who earn credit through prior learning achieve better outcomes in terms of degree completion and reduced time-to-degree than students who do not earn this type of credit. And these outcomes are particularly pronounced for underserved students.

There are proven strategies that institutions and policymakers can take to increase the acceptance of prior learning:

  • Revise institutional academic policies to embrace PLA
  • Develop and implement rigorous review processes to validate prior learning
  • Develop and implement robust and valid assessments, especially end-of-program learning outcomes assessments
  • Employ services such as KNEXT ( and Learning Counts ( to more efficiently and effectively evaluate prior learning

If we are serious about finding creative solutions to the access and affordability crisis facing higher education, it is time to get serious about recognizing all of the learning and knowledge that our adult students bring to us when they wish to pursue degrees.

Author Perspective: