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Recognizing the Value: Prioritizing Credit for Prior Learning

Moving forward, higher ed must recognize the importance of credit for prior learning to properly set students up for success and provide employers with concrete skills.

The number of adult learners in North America with some college and no degree is growing significantly. When it comes to skills on paper, they can’t start from scratch. Instead, higher ed needs to help these learners get the credentials they deserve to validate their work experience and put them on the right employment path. In this interview, Patricia Brewer and Mary Beth Lakin discuss the importance of credit for prior learning and how higher ed can leverage and improve to better serve the modern learner.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it essential for higher ed leaders to start prioritizing credit for prior learning (CPL)?

Patricia Brewer (PB): As of 2021, adult learners comprise about 25% of the undergraduates in college or university, so adults are a significant population we serve. Most of these students are part time, which means they may have work and community learning experiences that could be applied to their degrees through a CPL program.

In addition, credit for prior learning is actually a predecessor to two current and important higher education initiatives: assessment of student learning outcomes and competency-based education. Both link to CPL in terms of knowing what students know and building upon that knowledge to maximize learning growth for students. There’s a similar mindset behind CPL, but it combines the two initiatives into one.

Research studies, such as the 2020 CAEL-WICHE study, show that CPL is markedly successful with retention and completion rates for adult students, which contribute to the institution’s success. It’s critical for leadership to set the stage for CPL in terms of talking about it and implementing it properly and with integrity. Those pieces are important because people follow leadership. If leaders are actively involved and supportive, it makes all the difference in providing a quality CPL program for learners.

Mary Beth Lakin (MBL): It’s validation of talents, skills and knowledge that community members hold, plus recognition of community-based organizations and employers as sources of learning. It benefits the community at large when institutions acknowledge that students bring a wide range of valuable learning experiences.

We also need CPL to help us reach our equity and inclusion goals. The national research Patricia noted shows that underrepresented groups make significant gains in persistence and completion with CPL options.

Evo: What are some key obstacles when it comes to expanding a CPL model and getting people on board?

MBL: There’s a lack of awareness among stakeholders on campus—not just students but also faculty, administrators and staff. From national studies and research of our campuses in Minnesota, we know learners are likelier to enroll in programs where there are CPL opportunities. Often students aren’t aware of those options or are confused by the process. Along with lack of awareness, campuses may have misconceptions about what CPL is and how it works; they may feel they don’t have capacity or expertise. So, we need to work to embed CPL practice in campuses’ everyday work.

PB: Faculty and staff at some institutions are just trying to figure out where to start. How do you launch and scale this in a way that’s respectful to the institution and to students? Nearly all the frameworks we looked at focused on quality assurance and how the institution could actively implement a quality system. Quality assurance was a major point of interest for professional organizations, accrediting bodies and state and federal licensing units, as well as practitioners.

A good framework allows an institution to develop CPL expertise. For example, the American Council on Education’s CPL Implementation Matrix includes three components: infrastructure policies and processes, faculty engagement and development, and student outreach and support. The purpose of the matrix is for the institution to drop into the process and assess what it’s doing, then determine next steps to develop and advance the CPL program.

Evo: What are some other essential components of a robust framework that will make for a successful CPL program?

PB: Through a project with the Iowa Community Colleges and support from the California Community College System, we identified seven areas that are important to include in the framework your institution selects. These include mission alignment, integrity in structures and processes, student equity, faculty engagement and professional development, student services, credit management systems and a focus on resources, planning and improvement.

Communication is a critical component throughout the process. Students must be informed about CPL from the moment they walk in the door until graduation. Faculty and advisors must be able to discuss CPL with transparency and clarity. CPL can be applied throughout a student’s time at an institution, but clear and ongoing communication is needed to make this work.

MBL: Collecting and analyzing CPL’s impacts on student outcomes is one of the most challenging areas for institutions and systems. Patricia noted earlier the elements of CPL infrastructure that facilitate methods for more effective reporting on student demographics and their experiences across programs and CPL options. At Minnesota State we’ve also improved CPL coding and transcription to help us get a better picture of student outcomes.

We need to make CPL not only transparent and consistent but also equitable, and it takes a cross-functional team to do that. You’ll find different offices, processes and people along the student journey. Your role isn’t isolated; it connects to other roles and the students. A big part of implementation is thinking about each role, how it affects the student experience and outcomes, and what we can do as a team to integrate CPL guidance from application to graduation.

Evo: What partnerships can be beneficial when implementing CPL?

MBL: If we begin to work more effectively as a cross-functional team, we can build strong external partnerships. Look across those function areas and understand how we work with each other and share information. Language is another area we have to pay attention to when it comes to collaboration, so we are working together with a common understanding. As we recognize what community members, organizations and employers bring, we become better partners. 

PB: There are certainly some low-hanging fruit that institutions can consider when working with partners in the community. Businesses and other professional organizations that work with employees who hold state and federal licensure or certifications is a place to start. Apprenticeship programs are also a good example because faculty can see a national certification attached to a particular training program. Because of that certification, faculty may be more willing to evaluate that program to see what credit might be appropriate and available to the student.

Evo: What impact does a well-designed CPL framework have on learners and the community?

MBL: For learners, CPL builds confidence and competence and motivates them to complete credentials while saving them time and money. Recognition of and respect for the learning experiences of underrepresented groups of learners, such as New Americans, older adults and military veterans, benefits the individual student, their family, community and employer. And it sustains strong partnerships.

PB: A strong framework and a well-designed program can ensure quality and allow the institution to be proud of what it’s doing to build upon that success. The institution can continue to develop the CPL program, so it becomes something custom-made for the institution, that fits its mission and the design of other educational programs. That provides an authenticity to CPL that the institution might not have otherwise.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.