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Did you know that credits awarded by prior learning assessment may not transfer?

Okay, as scandals go, that’s weak tea. But as an operational matter for community colleges, it’s no small thing.

Prior Learning Assessment is the catchall term for credits awarded for documented mastery of material or skills acquired outside of regular classes. The usual methods are either exams -- AP, CLEP, and DSST are the most common national ones, though departments sometimes offer their own -- or portfolios of work.  

It’s reasonable to see PLA as a sort of embryonic form of competency-based education. In both cases, seat time is made irrelevant, and students are judged on their demonstrated knowledge or performance. And in both, it doesn’t really matter where the student picked up the knowledge or skill. This can reward the returning veteran who picked up certain skills in the military, or the office manager for a small business who could probably teach the introductory software course.  The idea is that recognizing skills or knowledge acquired outside of classes serves two purposes. One is to save time and money for the student, by allowing her to bypass courses that would be redundant for her. That’s the practical one. The other, which is perhaps more subtle, is to show respect for what the student has done. Being forced to sit through (and pay for) classes covering material a student already knows can be demoralizing. PLA done well offers students a chance to get a head start.

For faculty who are leery of “giving away” credits, the literature I’ve seen suggests that you more than get it back on the back end, through improved completion rates. Besides, I’d have a moral issue with compelling students to take and pay for courses covering things they already know just because we need the FTE’s.

For “terminal” degrees, PLA is a clean win. For “transfer” degrees, though, the picture is murkier.  

If a student takes English 101 at Local CC, gets a B, and later transfers to Compass Direction State, the credits will almost always transfer. But if that same student tested out of English 101 at Local CC, the PLA credits may not carry over. She may have to start all over again at Compass Direction State.

Part of that has to do with different cutoffs for certain exams. Many community colleges award credit for 3’s on AP exams, but many four-year colleges set the minimum at a 4. That’s annoying, but relatively clear, and easy enough to explain to an entering student.

For portfolios and departmental exams, by contrast, the judgments are much more idiosyncratic. In practice, that tends to lead to lost credits that a student may have believed, in all good faith, were settled already.

Yes, there are national organizations that offer to standardize judgments of portfolios, but their services are typically more expensive (and often more time-consuming) than simply taking the class, thereby defeating the purpose. Part of the point of PLA is to save time and money. If you have to spend four figures and four months on a “how to do a portfolio” class before you can even submit the work, you would have been better off just taking the class. And unlike for classes, there’s no financial aid for PLA.  

In principle, this strikes me as solvable, but the devil is in the details.  

I’m guessing that I’m not the first to notice the issue. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges come up with reasonably quick and cheap ways to honor PLA credits when students transfer?  

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