Published on 2023/04/12

Credit for Prior Learning Portfolios as a High-Impact Practice

As student populations only get more diverse, higher ed institutions must implement CPL portfolios to keep track of and appropriately communicate students’ increasingly broad and intersecting education.

The impact of Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) on the success of nontraditional learners (see Klein-Collins, 2017; Klein-Collins, 2010) and the value of CPL by portfolio specifically (see Klein-Collins, 2019) have been well communicated on our campuses. While much of the research on CPL has focused on the association between earning CPL credits and increased success rates for adult learners, a few studies have also explored the learning growth that occurs in a CPL portfolio (Brown, 2002; Rust and Ikard, 2016; Delleville, 2017). 

Our study, “Utilizing Prior Learning Portfolios to Rebundle Formal and Informal Learning,” contributes to this part of the conversation. Specifically, we examined student portfolios for evidence of integrative learning, which has been identified as an Essential Learning Outcome by AAC&U (2007) and found that student portfolios, as well as student self-reports, provided evidence of new learning that emerged as students reflected on their prior knowledge. 

As a group, students whose portfolios we examined could connect their learning across contexts. They perceived themselves as better prepared to communicate their learning to new audiences and apply what they learned to new situations because of their CPL portfolios. Especially moving was what students learned about themselves. As one student put it: “When I first started, I was very timid, very shy. It made me realize not only my self-worth, it made me find my inner voice.”

Having worked with adult learners and colleagues in the field for many years, it makes sense to us that adults would value CPL. Efficiency and tuition savings matter to students juggling responsibilities, and CPL by portfolio provides helpful flexibility to students who’ve been on long and complicated learning paths. The CPL portfolio can translate learning from any part of that pathway into something that can be recognized, assessed and utilized in the credentialing process.

This translation could potentially be done in relation to any academic program, making all programs more accessible for adults. We also suspected that the portfolio process could support student learning. AACU first recognized ePortfolio as a high-impact educational practice (HIP) in 2016. And, like any portfolio, CPL portfolio provides students with a platform to organize, document and reflect on learning. Plus, good CPL by portfolio practice includes multiple key HIP elements identified by Kuh, O’Donnell, and Reed (2013). 

However, the range of learning we found and its meaningfulness to students exceeded our expectations. The CPL portfolio process helped students see their learning as transferable and to see the value in their learning and in themselves as learners: “Prior to this program I don’t think I had the self-esteem or the confidence to even look for a job. I would have skimmed [the job posting] and moved on. I ended up getting a job in […]. I was able to articulate my self-worth.”

Among our most interesting findings was the impact CPL portfolio had on students who identified as women. All the women reported improved metacognition and ability to transfer their learning across contexts, and 93% reported newfound validation of their learning and themselves as learners. These values well exceeded those reported by men. 75% of men reported improvement for these two elements of learning. Since many of the women who participated in the study were of low-income status, the degree of benefit they experienced may have reflected their doubly nontraditional position. Their sense of belonging may have been weaker overall than that of other students, and the opportunity to see themselves as successful learners may have been more impactful as a result. If this is the reason for CPL’s greater impact on the women in our study, then students minoritized around race should benefit similarly to learning more about themselves and their learning. Research on other HIPs suggests that these educational practices support the success of students from minoritized groups and serve to close equity gaps. Equity gaps in HIPs participation and outcomes persist (Finley and McNair, 2013; Beck and Jacobson, 2021). 

Similarly, the research is clear that CPL uptake among adult URM students is low (Klein-Collins, et. al., 2020). Klein-Collins, et. al. (2021) have suggested that opt-in CPL is part of the problem. To access CPL, students have to know that it exists, be comfortable accessing the resource and have enough confidence in the institution to enroll. Each marginalizing element of their identity can decrease this sense of comfort and the likeliness of student uptake. 

Our research suggests that student confidence is a piece of the puzzle. We note that some of our students minimize their prior learning. For example, a current returning student, Ruby, is an African American working mother who stopped out two semesters short of graduation. She was referred to CPL by a faculty advocate. She has strong grades and work credentials, but she tended to diminish the value of her work. “I fill out the forms and do intake,” she told her CPL instructor. At each step of the portfolio-building process, however, Ruby provided more and more detail about the work she’d done and the learning in which she’d engaged. Her interactions with the instructor moved from respectful to enthusiastic. “Yes, I have done that,” she said to the instructor as they discussed learning outcomes, “I know how to do that.”  Ruby has completed an impressive portfolio and will graduate at the end of the semester. 

Scaling CPL and improving the uptake by URM and other minoritized students of this HIP will involve intentional practices, programming and cultural shifts for many of our institutions (McNair, Bensimon, Malcolm-Piqueux, 2020). Some of this change may be directly related to the way we as faculty and staff value the learning students from minoritized groups present us. The learning and the assets these students bring may look different than those higher education has historically valued and recognized (Finley, et. al., 2022; Ladson-Billings, 2014). When we combine equity-minded teaching and learning practices with HIPs, however, we may see more impressive gains for our students (Bartell and Boswell, 2022).

To get there, we must do the following:

  1. Reimagine our student enrollment pipelines to recognize both students’ enrollment patterns and the intersectional nature of their identities. They are not just nontraditional students. They may also be low-income, first-generation, caretakers or minoritized around race and ethnicity, for example. The data are clear: Minoritized students are more likely to delay college or stop out than students from nonminoritized populations. For this reason, we should expect to see over-representation of this population among our returning students. If not, then colleges and universities should reexamine their programing and the flexibility of reentry pathways to better engage potential completers. Several strategies to differently engage returning adult learners may be found within the chapters of New Models of Higher Education: Unbundled, Rebundled, Customized, and DIY (Brower and Specht-Boardman [Ed.], 2022). 
  1. Increase opportunities for adult learners to access recognition for their prior learning by integrating CPL portfolios into academic programs, making CPL an expected part of their education.
  1. Improve CPL bridges and increase the number of credits students earn by working across employment sectors to identify college-level learning outcomes, being mindful of professions in which low-income women and other minoritized groups cluster. 

The words of students from our study findings make it clear to us that scaling portfolio is worth the effort. To quote one of them: “I am more patient than I thought, I am smarter than I thought, I have a lot of knowledge in there and I can use it.”


Bartell, D. and Boswell, C. (2022) Promoting equity by design. In Delivering on the Promise of High-Impact Practices: Research and Model for Achieving Equity, Fidelity, Impact, and Scale. Zilvinskis, J. Kinzie, J., Daday, J., O’Donnel, K. and Vande Zande C. (Editors). Stylus. Serling, VA, 50–58.

Beck, C.N. and Jacobson, C.E. (2021, October 25) Increasing Equity in Work-Based High-Impact Practices [Paper presentation]. Assessment Institute, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Brower, A.M. and R.J. Specht-Boardman, Editors (2022) Enabling lifelong learning in California community colleges. In New Models of Higher Education: Unbundled, Rebundled, Customized, and DIY. IGI Global.

Brown, J. O. (2002). Know thyself: The impact of portfolio development on adult learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 52(3), 228–245.

Delleville, V. (2017). Texas A&M Texarkana illustrates best practices in PLA. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 65 (2), 132–143.

Finley, A., McNair, T., Clayton-Perdersen (2022). Designing equity-centered high-impact practices. In Delivering on the Promise of High-Impact Practices: Research and Model for Achieving Equity, Fidelity, Impact, and Scale. Zilvinskis, J. Kinzie, J., Daday, J., O’Donnel, K. and Vande Zande C. (Editors). Stylus. Serling, VA, 21–33.

Finley, A. and McNair, T. (2013). Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-impact Practices. American Association of Colleges and Universities. Washington, D.C.

Klein-Collins, R. (2010). Fueling the race to postsecondary success. Council on Adult and Experiential Learning.

Klein-Collins, R. & Hudson, S.  (2017) What happens when learning counts? Measuring the benefits of prior learning assessment for the adult learner. Council on Adult and Experiential Learning. 

Klein-Collins, R. & Hudson, S. (2019) Do methods matter? PLA, portfolio assessment, and the road to completion and persistence. Council on Adult and Experiential Learning.

Klein-Collins, R., Bransberger, P., & Lane, P. (2021). Equity paradoxes in the PLA boost. Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education & Council on Adult and Experiential Learning. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from

Klein-Collins, R., Taylor, J., Bishop, C., Bransberger, P., Lane, P. & Leibrandt, S. (2020). The PLA boost:  Results from a 72-institution targeted study of prior learning assessment and adult student outcomes. Council on Adult and Experiential Learning and Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education.

Kuh, G.D., O’Donnell, K., and Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale. American Association of Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: A.k.a. the remix. Harvard Education Review, 84(1), 74–84.

Marienau, Catherine. (December 2014). Why the adult brain likes PLA. CAEL Forum and News, 2014. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from

Rust, D. Z., & Brinthaupt, W. L. (2017). Student Perceptions of and experiences with a PLA course and portfolio review. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 65(1), 115-113.

Rust, D. Z., & Ikard, W. L. (2016). Prior learning assessment portfolio completion: improved outcomes at a public institution. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 64(2), 94–100.

Stevens, K., Gerber, D., Hendra, R. (2010). Transformational learning through prior learning assessment. Adult Education Quarterly, 60, 377–404.

Treis Rusk, D. & Smith, L. (2022) Utilizing prior learning portfolios to rebundle formal and informal learning. In New Models of Higher Education: Unbundled, Rebundled, Customized, and DIY. Edited by Ed. Brower, A.M. and R.J. Specht-Boardman. IGI Global.

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