Making the Case

Every institution around the world can benefit from a Prior Learning Assessment program. Yet, deploying such a program has seen its share of challenges at the institutional level given the individualized approach to students that a successful Prior Learning Assessment program demands in order to be successful.

Still, it is not just the students who benefit from a PLA program. In addition to students, PLA can have positive impacts on the institution. It can help with recruitment, student financial management, retention, academic development, and partnership development, and provide competency-based assessments.

PLA functions as an effective recruitment tool. Students start their college career with advanced standing credits instead of beginning as an entry-level freshman. Even if a student only has a few advanced standing credits, it can boost the student’s interest in coming to your institution. Advanced standing credits reduces the time to complete a degree and reduces costs for students. Often PLA credits can be used to meet general education and liberal arts requirements. This allows students to focus on their intended major.

PLA can be used to target and recruit specific populations, such as military students, working professionals and high achieving students.

PLA can be used as an expense management tool. For students, PLA credits equate to less costs and accelerates time to completion, which can also mean returning to the workforce sooner. Some colleges, such as the University of Memphis, use PLA as a form of scholarship.

For the institution, using scholarship funds for PLA can be an effective way to help students afford college. These scholarships can be used to target specific populations, which also helps increase enrollments, another financial incentive for an institution.

PLA serves as a retention tool. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) did a study in 2010 that compared over 65,000 students across 48 institutions. They compared students who participated in some form of PLA versus students who did not participate in any PLA opportunities. The results were staggering:

  • PLA students earned a Bachelor’s degree 2 ½ times the rate than non-PLA participants. At the Associate degree level, it was 2 times the rate. This was even more significant for minority students.
  • The study also showed that PLA students took less time to complete a degree, which is not surprising since they have earned more credits through the PLA process.
  • The most surprising result was that the PLA students took more courses at the institution than their counterparts. In other words, PLA students earned more institutional credits, on average about 10 more. This means that PLA students are starting with more credits but also sticking around and taking more credits and completing their degrees.

Other research has also shown that students who participate in individualized portfolio PLA options have an increase in study skills, problem solving, reflection skills and are better at self-regulating their learning than their non-PLA counterparts. These are all skills reflective of successful students.

PLA can serve as a partnership tool. Some institutions conduct Professional Learning Evaluations (the assessment of non-collegiate instruction that are organized, structured learning experiences not sponsored by an accredited college or university). These are a type of PLA whereby an institution of higher education or an organization, such as the American Council on Education or the National College Credit Recommendation Service, has evaluated a non-collegiate training or program or certification or license, and determined the extent of college level learning. The assessment process reviews the program, including instructional activities and the assessments required to determine that the individuals who participated have been assessed for their leaning at a college level. Students are expected to supply official verification as indicated by the evaluation recommendations.

In each of these cases, an evaluation team consisting of faculty, field experts and administrative oversight, conduct the evaluations. The American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service pull their faculty from different institutions across the United States.

Industry partners can also benefit from PLA opportunities. If a partner has an employee tuition reimbursement program, the costs of PLA fees are usually much lower than tuition and can save the partner costs. In addition, if that partner has its own training program, the learning gained from the training can be evaluated for credits toward a degree program, strengthening the connection between workplace learning and higher education.

PLA can serve as an academic tool for an institution. When faculty are advising students about their prior learning or are evaluating portfolio assessments or professional learning evaluations, they increase their own knowledge of the field. As a result, this knowledge becomes incorporated into the curriculum, which broadens the knowledge-base of an institution. Faculty often mention that working with students on PLA is the best professional development that they experience.

PLA can serve as a competency-based assessment. Using techniques, such as portfolios, examinations and other types of PLA, one can assess how well a student has met specific competencies.