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The Importance of Credit for Prior Learning

Higher ed needs to focus on providing credit for prior learning that properly communicates what learners know to provide them with more opportunities in the workforce.

Here at the University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC), we champion Credit for Prior Learning (CPL). From our executive leadership team, to our deans, to enrollment, student services and at every level, CPL Champions within UAGC support my team in the work we do. I call them champions because their support helps us make a difference in our students’ lives.  


Developing, maintaining and updating a CPL program requires input from people across the institution. My advice to others is to find your champions! Champions understand how beneficial CPL is for students. They know how CPL is a win-win-win opportunity, and they will provide crucial ideas, opportunities and support for your program. Every person you interact with are partners on the CPL journey.  


The Focus on CPL  


Higher education trends show that adult learners are the norm. Not only do these learners bring a unique mix of learning from personal, professional and educational sources, but adult learners are savvy. They generally understand that CPL is an option and are looking to schools for specific details on how to translate learning into credits. Schools must clearly and concisely explain CPL so learners feel comfortable.  


In this vein, 87% of our student population is 25 years old or older*. They bring a wealth of work and life experience. Our CPL options, listed as nontraditional credit in our catalog, offer a robust opportunity for our students to translate their learning into credits.  


We don’t stop there. We help students looking to speed up their time to graduation connect with ongoing opportunities to earn additional transfer credits, such as completing additional CLEP or DSST exams or pursuing UAGC Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) for industry certifications (CompTIA+, FINRA, etc.). With this move, we are actively telling our students that we value them, want to help them, and that there are available options to potentially save them time and money.  


Getting Support for CPL  


According to research from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE)**, students complete their credentials at a substantially higher rate when they are awarded 15 or more credits for prior learning. For institutions, awarding CPL is an easy—and equitable—way of helping students succeed. Do we want a 22-point increase in credential completion? Yes, please!  


I look at CPL as a win-win-win opportunity. Students save time and money with every transfer credit applied. Recognizing the learning that students bring helps increase feelings of belonging, gets them into major courses more quickly and drastically increases their completion rates. Faculty see engaged students in more advanced courses and get to teach their specialty subjects. The students and faculty are more engaged, and completion rates increase. I have heard arguments that CPL means faculty won’t teach as many courses, but the data show that awarding CPL increases the number of students completing their credentials. What this finding indicates is that they are staying enrolled, finishing more courses and getting to completion with the PLA Boost. Follow those data.  


Partnerships Within the CPL Framework 


In terms of partnerships, a CPL/PLA program does not exist in a vacuum. I try to think of everyone we work with as a partner. Each group is crucial in creating a successful, collaborative program. Here are some people we partner with: 

  • Faculty
  • Student advising
  • Marketing
  • IT
  • Employer and other training partners
  • And most importantly students 

UAGC CPL policies consist of three areas: national testing programs, national credit recommendation services and UAGC PLA. The bulk of our students earn CPL through a testing program like CLEP or DSST or from a training that carries a credit recommendation from the American Council on Education (ACE) or the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS), including military Joint Services Transcripts. Our application process includes steps for students to identify their credit opportunities and other work/life experiences, which enrollment helps with. To make it easy and equitable for students, wherever possible, our admissions and matriculation teams evaluate approved-accredited traditional, national testing program and ACE/NCCRS official transcripts using the same process and course rubrics.   


For everything else, our UAGC PLA offerings help students turn their learning into credit through one of two processes: sponsored professional training and an experiential essay. Both options culminate in a faculty subject matter expert reviewing student submissions for proof of learning and determining if credits may be awarded.


It takes a TEAM.  


During our CAEL presentation, we spoke about faculty and PLA collaboration on pioneering two new opportunities for current students: CHAMPS and Honors Program PLA. Students participate in extracurricular mentoring and Honors Program learning opportunities. These activities are not part of a credit-bearing class, so students may pursue PLA elective credit upon fulfilling specific requirements. Both opportunities align with our sponsored professional training option and have become popular with our students. Our faculty brought these opportunities to us and asked if or how PLA might work. By reviewing requirements, regulations, possibilities and more, we developed these opportunities to work for students.  


What to Take From This 


The education landscape is changing: Students have more options than ever before, technology is constantly evolving, and society is focused on equity. So, institutions need to change the way they look at CPL to meet learners where they are.  


When you explore new opportunities, be clear about internal and external regulations. By starting with truly non-negotiable items, remaining areas can change. Be bold. Talk to Faculty about how students best prove learning for their subject(s). Talk to students about what learning they feel lacks recognition. Bring advising to the table and ask for their feedback on gaps. Ask questions like: Can an option you offer be leveraged by multiple departments? Is it sustainable? Is it equitable? What are you trying to accomplish with this option? Pull data from published research papers—our industry has so many data available! This information will help you plan for your institution and serve students in ways they need and are starting to expect. 


Learning is learning regardless of where it occurs. Let’s recognize and celebrate all of it.  


Credit transferability is subject to the University of Arizona Global Campus transfer credit policies and requires submitting official transcripts. The official transcripts will be evaluated by the registrar’s office to determine which credits will officially apply toward a UAGC degree program. Credits must be earned at the same degree level to be applied. Additional restrictions may apply.  




See the UAGC Academic Catalog for full undergraduate and graduate transfer policies. 

*Office of Institutional Effectiveness, The University of Arizona Global Campus