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Doing More With Less: How Thomas Edison State University Is Boosting CPL With Professional Learning Reviews

Credit for prior learning can act as more than just a gateway for students to return to higher ed, but a key strategy for an institution’s success.
Credit for prior learning can act as more than just a gateway for students to return to higher ed, but a key strategy for an institution’s success.

“Meeting students where they are” is a phrase we use often when talking about how to serve adult learners well. But adult learners are at many different places in their personal and professional lives. That’s why CAEL members have been at the forefront of helping higher ed recognize the need to go beyond rigid pathways to academic credit. Since its founding, CAEL institutional member Thomas Edison State University has offered workforce-relevant degree programs to accommodate multiple education-employment pathways for adult learners. In fact, TESU, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, began as a degree aggregator, helping students parlay learning from college and university courses, work-based training programs, and self-developed skills into degree completion.

Today, the university offers its own classes, with associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in more than 100 areas of study. Yet it’s clear that credit for prior learning is not just a defining feature of TESU’s legacy, but also a key strategy for its future success. TESU views that success through a holistic lens, prioritizing regional development by supporting employers, communities, and even other educators. At the heart of this agnostic mindset, which regards whether students graduate as more important than where they matriculate, is TESU’s work to democratize the CPL process, most recently through a resurgence with the university’s groundbreaking professional learning review program. As we’ll see, PLR “flips the script” on the traditional prior learning assessment model and amplifies CPL’s benefits for students, institutions, employers, and even government programs.

TESU has offered PLR as part of its overall CPL program for the past 20 years, but a recent grant from the New Jersey Department of Labor is the latest example of how TESU innovation is supporting education and workforce ecosystems and the adult learners they depend on. To learn more about TESU’s approach to CPL and its latest work around PLR, I spoke with Dr. Cynthia Baum and Dr. Jeff Harmon. Harmon is TESU’s Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Institutional Effectiveness, and Baum is the university’s Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Since CPL practices date back to TESU’s founding, it’s not surprising that the university views it as critical for adult learners, especially for underserved students. In fact, the university’s own data echos industry research showing CPL boosts completion, especially with underserved populations. Unfortunately, we also know from our research that because CPL is underutilized, higher ed is missing promising opportunities to address equity gaps. To encourage the use of CPL, TESU founded the New Jersey Prior Learning Assessment Network. NJPLAN offers adult learners a one-stop shop for converting prior learning experiences into postsecondary credit – with transfer opportunities to any of New Jersey’s colleges and universities. Within NJPLAN, TESU functions as a prior learning hub, where students can complete a portfolio assessment and apply the resulting credits via an academic transcript provided to their home institution. A recent grant of $250,000 from the New Jersey state office of higher education promises to further increase access to CPL opportunities. The grant funds scholarships for students from other institutions to use NJPLAN services at TESU.

Given the recent research showing the missed potential of CPL and in light of CAEL’s renewed work to encourage CPL uptake, these accomplishments are inspiring and timely. Their impact is also reflected in numbers Baum and Harmon shared. In academic year 2021, TESU awarded nearly 275,000 credits via portfolio assessment, DANTES, CLEP, PLR, and other sources. Over the past five years, CPL at TESU has totaled 1.4 million credits. That’s the equivalent of more than 11,500 bachelor’s degrees!

In addition to fellow educational institutions, TESU is collaborating with workforce partners to increase CPL usage. We need more work-based learning opportunities that combine employer training and postsecondary education as a lever to advance equity and economic opportunity for adult learners. These programs provide clear skill requirements for different industries and occupations, clear direction about how to obtain necessary skills, and a shared mechanism to measure them that improves postsecondary and employment outcomes.

That’s where PLR shines. PLR tackles prior learning assessment from a complementary angle. It assesses prior learning on a program, rather than individual, level. This is not only more proactive, but also more efficient. As Harmon explains it, PLR is paid for by the offering entity. It allows TESU to evaluate a learning experience once and provide credit to any learner (the employee, intern) completing that experience at no charge to the learners and at significantly less cost than through individual PLA assessments – providing much greater impact.

The process begins with a review of an external learning program. Examples are union apprenticeships, training at an individual company, and industry certifications. TESU partners with independent industry experts to carry out the reviews based on proprietary rubrics that the university has developed. Assessment factors include academic quality, rigor, student identity, verification, assessment of learning, and other standards. The university then completes a second, internal review to confirm published credit equivalencies. Baum notes that this process is on par with the formal governance applied to any academic program. TESU conducts about two dozen PLR reviews per year at various workforce partners. They typically take two to six months to complete.

Once completed, a PLR offering maps external learning to specific TESU programs that allow students to maximize credit equivalencies. Students can apply up to 90 PLR credits to a TESU degree. They can stack diverse external training programs that have been evaluated through the PLR process. Even when students choose a major that isn’t explicitly mapped to a PLR program, TESU works to determine what credit equivalences persist with their preferred degree path. Students can also use PLR for elective credits.

By proactively recognizing learning in a professional setting, PLR creates benefits that ripple outward from the adult learners at the center of it. PLR is an affirmation that workplace training transcends a single job. Credit equivalence lends it transferable value that signals both industry-relevant competencies and academic preparedness. These qualities make PLR an effective workforce recruitment and retention tool. Its links to college credit can also boost efficiency. By generating college credit, it reduces the expenses of education benefit programs. Undergoing the review process itself, which ensures that knowledge isn’t just offered but also absorbed, can also highlight opportunities for improvements to training programs.

But I think one of the most compelling aspects of TESU’s PLR process is how it is helping transform an “either or” exchange to a “both and” benefit. Baum and Harmon stressed that, particularly with apprenticeship models, PLR aims to eradicate the fork in the road that forces people to choose between higher education and a trade career. Creating parallel pathways that allow adult learners to complete both an apprenticeship and a degree is an excellent way to meet learners where they are. But the PLR program can even meet students “where they were.” If a training provider can document how long their evaluated curriculum has been in place, TESU can retroactively make that credit available to students who have completed the program up to 10 years ago. To ensure continually valid credit equivalencies, PLR programs incorporate an annual substantive change notification process. If there are none, renewal reviews occur every five years.

In addition to directly supporting its students’ success, PLR offers several benefits to TESU. Regular interaction with industry experts during review processes helps maintain strong workforce links. It also supports recruiting, as employees of participating organizations realize that workforce training isn’t just furthering a career but also a college education.

In addition, PLR has positioned TESU to deliver groundbreaking efficiencies to grant programs. In 2021, the New Jersey department of labor announced a grant to fund college evaluation of students’ apprenticeships for credit. In its application, TESU illustrated how the PLR model could meet the grant’s objectives while slashing costs. By evaluating the apprenticeship itself, PLR makes the resulting credit award available to everyone in the program rather than on an ad hoc basis.

The department of labor awarded TESU a grant of $849,000, which is allowing 100 adults to complete associate degrees at no cost to them. On average, TESU awards about 30 credits from apprenticeship training, and the scholarship funds the remaining 30 credits or so to complete the degree. The grant program includes four TESU apprenticeship partners. They are the Northeast Carpenter Apprenticeship Training Fund, IBEW Local 269, the National Elevator Industry Education Program, and Eastern Millwork, Inc. The program’s efficiency is also allowing TESU to channel grant funds remaining after the scholarship awards toward the evaluation of additional apprenticeship programs.

There is definitely demand for PLR programs. In academic year 2017, TESU awarded 53,676 PLR credits. By academic year 2021, that number had increased to 65,659, when 1,686 students received PLR credit. That’s 1,686 individual pathways, but, thanks to PLR, far fewer forks in the road.

It’s a pleasure for CAEL to share the great work CAEL institutional members like Thomas Edison State University are doing for adult learners. You can learn more about the innovations the CAEL community creates and champions at our conferences and other events. Interested in sharing your own adult learning success story? Contact

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