For many students, attending college not only involves studying for exams and completing coursework, but also juggling other responsibilities as parents, caregivers and employees.
These additional obligations often deter individuals from re-enrolling in college or finishing their degree. One way to reduce those barriers to completion is through prior learning assessments, which give a student credit for previous experiences and skills beyond the traditional classroom.
“Being able to balance all that life brings along with being a student is often a challenge,” says Wendy Sedlak, strategy director for research and evaluation at Lumina Foundation. “Institutions have traditionally not been set up in the ways to provide sort of the flexibility and the holistic support that are needed to really help those students achieve their goals and achieve a quality credential along the way.”
What Is a Prior Learning Assessment?
Prior learning assessments, also known as credit for prior learning, provide credit for college-level learning outside of the classroom, experts say. Those credits can be earned through a standardized exam, portfolio assessment or evaluation of noncollege learning, according to Becky Klein-Collins, vice president for impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a national nonprofit organization.
“When somebody is coming back to school, after years of being away from high school, they’ve been living those experiences and learning and growing,” she says. “A lot of what they’ve been learning is relevant to what happens in an academic environment.”
Credit through prior learning assessments can take several forms.
The College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP, which is administered by the College Board, is one of several standardized tests that students can take for college credit. There are 34 exams in subject areas such as science, math, business, languages and history. Individuals can obtain three college credits for every passed CLEP exam, and credits are accepted at 2,900 U.S. institutions, according to the College Board.
Each CLEP exam costs $89, but additional administrative fees may apply. Individuals affiliated with the military are eligible for waived exam fees.
“We’ve heard stories of students who are in their last semester and find out they were a couple credits short and were no longer on track to graduate,” says Patrick Lane, vice president of policy analysis and research at the nonprofit Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. “But they worked with their advisers to find a CLEP exam that meets their skills and expertise and earned some credits that way and managed to graduate that semester.”
Other standardized test options include DSST and Excelsior College Examinations. Some colleges offer departmental exams for individuals who have knowledge about a certain subject area beyond the topics available for standardized tests. High school students, specifically, can also receive credit through Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.
A student can compile documents to showcase his or her learning experiences and skills.
Within the portfolio, students explain what they learned and how it relates to a specific course learning objective. The portfolio is evaluated by a trained subject matter expert such as a faculty member to determine the number of credits awarded, Klein-Collins says.
Evaluation of Noncollege Learning
Credit for prior learning is also earned through more formal instruction like military training.
The American Council on Education worked with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a military guide, which evaluates training programs to provide credit recommendations. Colleges and universities can use the suggestions to match a service member or veteran’s military training with course catalogs to award credits.
“If somebody is trying to achieve an aircraft mechanic credential, for example, and they bring experience from working at United or in the military, they can use that modernized military guide as a way to provide evidence for their credit for prior learning,” says Michele Spires, acting executive director of learning evaluations at ACE.
ACE also collaborates with institutions to provide credit for other experiences like workplace training, professional licenses or certifications.
Benefits of PLA Credits
Receiving credit for prior learning can minimize the number of courses needed to graduate, in turn reducing tuition fees. Adult students with credit for prior learning saved an average of $1,481 at two-year public institutions, $3,794 at public four-year institutions and $10,220 at four-year private nonprofit institutions, according to CAEL’s 2020 revised report, “The PLA Boost.”
The average cost of tuition and fees to attend a private institution for 2021-2022 is $38,185, according to data submitted to U.S. News in an annual survey, while in-state and out-of-state tuition and fees at public colleges average much less at $10,338 and $22,698, respectively.
“If you’re paying out of pocket for tuition, there are fees associated with prior learning assessments usually, whether it’s an exam or an assessment of work you’ve done for your employer or something else,” Lane says. “But those fees are generally much less than tuition for a class that would get you the same number of credits.”
Prior learning assessments save students time as well as money.
Adult students with at least 12 PLA credits saved from nine to 14 months on average in earning their degree, according to the CAEL report. Additionally, PLA increased an adult student’s completion rate by over 17%. Adult students with PLA also had a credential completion rate of 49%, compared to 27% for adults without PLA.
How to Get Credit for Prior Learning
The process for earning credit for prior learning varies by institution, and not every school offers the opportunity.
“Some schools do a terrific job, letting students know about it, and really being proactive and how they reach out to students about it,” Lane says. “But in too many of our institutions, the burden is on the student to figure out what opportunities there are, how they might navigate that process, in what from their background might qualify.”
At institutions like Shaw University, a historically Black college in North Carolina, information about PLA is available on their website. To be eligible, students provide proof of their prior learning once they are accepted and have declared a major. Faculty members in the relevant academic area then review the information and match a student with a qualifying course that is equivalent to his or her prior learning, if applicable.
Using a recent grant from the Lumina Foundation, the college plans to reevaluate its prior learning policies further to better serve the adult student population, according to Terrance Dixon, vice president of enrollment management and student success at Shaw.
“Given that the market has shifted a bit more, this work that we’re doing with Lumina allows us to go back and help these adult learners understand how to take that prior learning experience and connect it to industry and connect to programs at Shaw that they really want to study,” Dixon adds.
But at colleges or universities where the path to earning credit is not as clear, experts suggest students talk with an academic adviser.
“If you have done the due diligence of identifying a college or university where (PLA) is offered and you’re starting the process of enrollment, this is when you really need to advocate for yourself and ask about the opportunities for getting credit,” Klein-Collins says.
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