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PLA and the Completion Agenda: Creating Value for Students and Institutions

The EvoLLLution | PLA and the Completion Agenda: Creating Value for Students and Institutions
It’s critical for colleges and universities to increase their PLA capacity in order for them to do their part to increase nationwide completion rates and support the growth of the labor market.

This is the conclusion of Walter Pearson’s two-part series discussing prior learning assessment (PLA) and its role in supporting the national post-secondary completion agenda. In the first part, Pearson outlined the different approaches to PLA that exist across the higher education space. In this series conclusion, he outlines the four key arguments supporting the wider adoption of PLA and discusses the financial value of PLA for colleges and universities.

There are four key arguments on behalf of PLA.

• Students who complete the portfolio form of PLA demonstrate much greater persistence toward the degree than those who do not complete PLA.

• The portfolio form of PLA enables both cognitive and affective growth among adult students.

• The portfolio form of PLA makes a contribution to enhancing economic opportunity and to the democratizing mission of adult higher education.

• The portfolio form of PLA produces a significant increase in tuition revenue through this increase in persistence.


Studies have found an association between the portfolio form of PLA and persistence. Freers (1994) found PLA completers at a community college went on to finish a bachelor’s or higher at a 71-percent rate, far higher than those who had not completed the portfolio. Snyder (1990) found that community college students who applied for PLA credits after one year of study persisted at higher rates, and this was a significant predictor for persistence. In Pearson (2000) eligible students who did not complete the PLA portfolio persisted at the 39-percent level, while those who completed PLA persisted at the 75 percent level. In this study involving part-time students age 25 and above, the two key predictors of persistence in the logistic regression model were the number of prior college credits and the completion of PLA. In the large sample used in a CAEL (2010) study, students more than doubled their persistence rate if they had completed at least one form of PLA.

The impact of PLA on degree completion is profound.
The impact of PLA on degree completion is profound.

Confidence, motivation, and skills

PLA contributes to academic integration and to cognitive and affective growth in adult students, thus supporting greater persistence.

Academic integration

PLA promotes academic integration (i.e., a sense of connection with the institution). Students who complete the portfolio process report a new sense of self—the understanding that they are already a learned person. The portfolio process supports persistence by making completion a more proximate goal. We know that more distant goals are harder to achieve. As one student remarked after completing the portfolio interview and being awarded 22 credits, “I walked in here a sophomore and I walked out a junior.” This savings on time and money has a powerful effect on motivation. Adult students are especially sensitive to price, and the savings from the PLA process can be very large.

Affective outcomes

Students who complete the portfolio speak of satisfaction, pride, a new perspective, a feeling of accomplishment, and appreciation of the process for saving time and money (Boornazian, 1994; Dagavarian & Walters, 1993; Fisher, 1991; Freers, 1994).

Burris (1997) found that students value the process of portfolio completion for its contribution to strengthening values. The values cited by the students were independence, freedom, choices, learning, tenacity, hard work, nonconformity, pride, aspiration, and goal commitment.

Increased self-awareness

The steps in the process of the portfolio that involve reflecting, organizing the reflections, and receiving affirmation from the college in the form of credits awarded has the potential to make very positive changes in self-concept. A well-structured PLA process changes students’ thinking not only about their pasts, but about the present and their futures as well (McGinley, 1995). Increased self-awareness (Sheckley & Weil, 1994), increased self-confidence and individual growth (Freers, 1994), and changes in how students view their past fears and limitations (McGinley, 1995) are found in studies of PLA participants. The adult students suggest that the PLA portfolio preparation is “full of revelations” (Burris, 1997, p. 116). “The person I am is now coming out. … [The person] that I always was has surfaced” (p. 127). “What I did there was assess my whole life and … realized my capabilities” (p. 121). Students who finish the process are usually quite proud and speak of the portfolio as something they are excited to share with children and other family members.

Cognitive outcomes

One cognitive outcome of the portfolio process is a realization of the value of prior learning (Burris, 1997; McGinley, 1995). Students gain academic and organizational skills in the portfolio development and writing process (Burris, 1997). The PLA portfolio process certifies readiness for further learning and gives students a forum to investigate the structure of college-level learning through its requirement that they equate their learning from experience to the structure of the curriculum (Dagavarian & Walters, 1993).

Improved writing skills

One student who completed the PLA process wrote, “Because of my experience with the PLA course, I am confident that I have learned critical thinking and writing techniques that I would not have otherwise developed outside of this process. The PLA course has developed me both personally and professionally, and because of this, I have become a stronger writer.” (Richter, 2013).

The social impact of PLA

The economic impact

For society, expanded degree completion for adult students has the potential to enhance economic equality. The annual income for full-time working adults who complete the college degree is substantially higher than those who do not complete the degree. The economic pay-off from college completion is dramatic. In an economy shifting toward the knowledge sector, the presence of a college degree matters: “… we calculate that the average value of a college degree—compared to a high school diploma—is about $1.6 million in additional earnings” (Carnevale, 2015). PLA leads to greater persistence, and greater degree completion leads to higher lifetime incomes.

In addition to the enhancement of economic well being, shortages of college-educated skilled workers are having a negative impact in many fields. “These days, demand for positions in the knowledge economy grows by 3 percent each year… while higher education meets only 1 percent of that growth” (Fain, 2015). Expanded participation in PLA by adult students and more widespread adoption of PLA could play a role in enhanced college completion for adult students and, thus, in creating greater income equality and in solving skilled worker shortages.

The democratizing effect

More important than the economic pay-off is the expansion of the democratic attitude. When education fulfills its mission in a democratic society, it enables the learner to grow from a process of reflection through experience. John Dewey reminds us that “the educational process is one of continual reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming” (Dewey, 1916, p. 54) Dewey reminds us that educators must cultivate the capacity for understandings built from experience. “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling” (p. 56). The cultivation of this stance is central to the mission of education in a democratic society. “Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education” (p. 93).

The portfolio form of prior learning assessment democratizes the relationship between the learner and the institution and enables the learner to realize that he or she has already learned much from life and that experience will continue to be a rich source for learning throughout life. The democratized relationship and the growth in learner confidence enhance the desirable social effect of education. The assessment and recognition of prior learning derived from adult experiences is an important contribution to the democratizing mission of higher education.

Calculating the impact on the bottom line

How the university can do well while “giving away” credits

For colleges, the economic payoff from expanding PLA has the potential to be dramatic. This assertion seems counter-intuitive. How could a process in which the college awards credit for prior learning without charge enhance tuition revenue? The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has long recommended that all credits awarded via the PLA portfolio process be without charge. Most colleges charge a small fee to have the portfolio considered. At the author’s college, the maximum grant of PLA portfolio credits is 36, and this is equivalent to a scholarship worth $22,680. PLA credits are awarded to the student without any tuition charge. In one study, the average award was 14 credits, worth $8820 in current tuition dollars (Pearson, 2000). Learning Counts reports an average award of 8 credits. This is a fairly common practice. Does it make sense to give up this much in tuition income?

We know that students who complete PLA double their chances of persisting if they complete the PLA process. A college that currently does not provide PLA could experience a substantial rise in net tuition due to the positive impact on persistence. A college that currently has a low level of participation could also experience a boost in net tuition from an effort to expand participation in PLA. If the college could take the rate of participation in the PLA process to 15 percent (about average) and the rate of persistence stayed the same for PLA completers with this higher rate of participation, the net tuition income from these students would have grown substantially. This is one example where colleges will do well by doing the right thing for adult students.

Promotion of the PLA options

Even where PLA is a robust option and students have access to multiple versions of PLA, the rate of participation remains low. Some studies point to a rate of participation in the portfolio form of around 15 percent (Pearson) while the CAEL 2010 study points to a rate of participation in all forms of PLA of around 25 percent. Students with military service typically will have PLA awards via the Joint Services Transcript, and we know that 67 percent of those students participate in PLA (CAEL, 2010).

The PLA portfolio process is a sizable project requiring self-direction, so considerable promotion is needed to achieve a high enough rate of participation to make a difference in persistence. A common practice is to have regular free seminars of 1-2 hours in duration in which the PLA options are described and students are invited to enroll in a course to support their completion of a portfolio. Mature PLA systems feature a course to assist students in the development of the portfolio. The faculty who teach this course typically do not participate in the portfolio assessment and normally provide ongoing support for portfolio development after completion of the course.


If we are to make progress in helping adult students to complete their degrees, widespread adoption of prior learning assessment is an essential step. Well-run systems of PLA have a range of options for students and are run in accordance with well-established standards. Colleges must see an investment in PLA as one that supports students and improves the bottom line. To that end, the PLA options must be regularly promoted to students and supported by investments in a quality assessment system so that wider participation is achieved and greater persistence ensues.

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Series References

American Council on Education. (2015). The National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training. Retrieved from

Boornazian, S. (1994). Prior learning assessment using story: Academic access for underserved populations (Doctoral dissertation, Union Institute, New York, NY, 1994). Dissertation Abstracts International, 55, 2734.

Burris, J. (1997). The adult undergraduate’s experience of portfolio development: A multiple case study (Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, Austin, TX, 1990). Dissertation Abstracts International, 58, 2742.

Carnevale, A., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2015). Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018. Retrieved from

Complete College America. (2011). Time is the Enemy. Retrieved from

Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2010). Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success. Retrieved from

Dagavarian, D., & Walters, W. (1993). Outcomes assessment of prior learning assessment programs. In Dagavarian, D. (Ed.) In support of prior learning assessment and outcomes assessment of prior learning assessment programs. Proceedings of the National Institute on the Assessment of Experiential Learning (Princeton, New Jersey, 1993). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED387613)

Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES). (2014). DoD Voluntary Education Fact Sheet. Retrieved from

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. (The middle works of John Dewey 1899-1924 Vol. 9). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Fain, P. (2012). College Credit Without College. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from

Fain, P. (2015). The New Bachelor’s Payoff. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from

Fidler, M., Marienau, C., & Whitaker, U. (2006). Assessing Learning: Standards, Principles, and Procedures (Second Edition) Chicago, Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Fisher, V. (1991). An institutional evaluation of perceptions and expectations of a portfolio assessment program (life experience) (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University Teachers College, New York, NY, 1991). Dissertation Abstracts International, 57, 2908.

Freers, S. (1994). An evaluation of adult learners’ perceptions of a community college’s assessment of prior learning program (Doctoral dissertation, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA, 1994). Dissertation Abstracts International, 56, 0059.

Horn, L., & Carroll, D. (1997). Nontraditional undergraduates: Trends in enrollment from 1986 to 1992 and persistence and attainment among 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students. (NCES 97-578). Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Education Statistics.

McGinley, L. (1995). Transformative learning and prior learning assessment. Paper presented at the National Conference on Alternative and External Degree Programs for Adults, Columbus, OH. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 402 510)

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning. 2015. Retrieved from

Pearson, W. (2000). Enhancing adult student persistence: The relationship between prior learning assessment and persistence toward the baccalaureate degree. Doctoral dissertation, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Richter, R. (2013). PLA-What can you earn? Retrieved from

Schmitz, S., & McGurk, S. (2014). High School/Home School Students: The Fastest Growing Segment of CLEP Testing. Retrieved from percent20High percent20School-Home percent20School percent20Students.pdf

Sheckley, B., & Weil, S. (1994). Using experience to enhance learning. In M. Keeton (Ed.) Perspectives on experiential learning: Prelude to a global conversation about learning. (pp. 7-12). Chicago, IL: The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Snyder, G. (1990). Persistence of community college students receiving credit for prior learning. Doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

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