Giving 'Prior Learning' Its Due

January 18, 2007

Higher education is still the route to gaining credentials for having acquired new skills and knowledge. But sometimes college-level skills and knowledge are acquired not in a classroom at a college or university, but on a job or through independent study.

Take Roger: As a former service member of the armed forces, Roger was given training in computer programming and systems design so he could carry out his duties. He developed so much computer know-how, in fact, that after leaving the military, he secured a job working as a Systems Analyst. In this job, too, Roger acquired a great deal of knowledge – enough to write technical manuals and design Web-based systems using Java Script, HTML and Lotus Notes.

But while Roger has marketable skills, he does not yet have the formal degree in Information Systems Management that he needs to move up in his career. When exploring his educational options, Roger realized that many higher education institutions would require him to start from scratch and enroll in lower-level computer classes. This, to him, felt like an enormous waste of both time and tuition dollars. One institution, however, offered him something different: the chance to demonstrate what he knew and have it evaluated for college credit toward a degree.

Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA, as it is commonly called, is a process through which over half of American colleges and universities evaluate and award credit for learning that is acquired outside of the classroom -- and only when specially trained faculty determine that the learning is similar in content, depth, and breadth to college-level learning.  

Since 1974, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a national nonprofit organization, has been establishing and disseminating standards for PLA, training faculty evaluators, and carrying out research on the outcomes of these efforts. In the last several years, we have begun to see states and employers become interested in PLA as an economic development strategy: PLA can help more working adults acquire postsecondary degrees faster and cheaper -- and a higher level of educational attainment can be a boost for a state’s economy. For example, an Inside Higher Ed article a few months ago reported that Gov. Edward G. Rendell is urging Pennsylvania colleges and universities to give adult and working students academic credit for learning from their previous experience in the work place.

While PLA is a great way to address the challenge of raising the educational attainment level of the workforce, it often generates some concern -- and even cries of alarm -- in traditional higher education circles. As one reader wrote in response to the article on Governor Rendell’s support for PLA, “It seems like degree-for-purchase. Experience and formal education are two different and important credentials.”

Such criticism is understandable, since anything that resembles a scheme to simply amass credits for the right price would undermine the entire educational system. But it is important to understand some key facts about PLA that distinguish it from these kinds of questionable schemes.

1. Credits Are Awarded for College-Level Learning, Not for Experience. One of the common misconceptions about PLA is that it is awarding credit for a person’s life or work experience. (The Inside Higher Ed article mistakenly defined PLA that way as well.) One of CAEL’s key PLA standards is that credit should never be granted for experience alone, but rather for the learning that results from experience. The focus is on the learning outcome, not the path used to get there. In some ways, then, PLA credit is more rigorously awarded than are some traditional credits from courses, which are occasionally granted for seat time as much as for actual student performance or learning gains.

2. Credits Are Awarded Only for College-Level Learning. It is not enough to say that someone learned how to repair a car’s engine and therefore should get credit for that. The learning must be something that would normally be taught in a college level course. This makes it difficult for someone to gain credit for raising a family or helping a sick family member. A PLA evaluator is looking for learning that is at the college level and that is transferable to many different contexts. Also scrutinized by the evaluator is whether the learning that was gained has an appropriate balance between theory and application.

3. PLA Practitioners and Assessors Are Well Trained. PLA credit is not awarded by just anyone on the faculty, but by professionals who are trained to adhere to national standards and guidelines and who are familiar with the steps, tools and procedures in the PLA process. They are also well trained in the process of Portfolio Development that leads to the recognition of learning for credit.

4. PLA Practitioners Adhere to Nationally Established Guidelines and Processes. Colleges and universities who want to ensure that the credits they award are transferable to other institutions follow nationally established guidelines and adhere to national standards for PLA. For example, CAEL and several of the regional accrediting commissions have developed guidelines for PLA, and several national educational organizations – the American Council on Education (ACE), the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) – have published a Joint Statement on the Transfer and Award of Credit that addresses PLA. Higher education institutions who adhere to these standards are using rigorous processes to evaluate learning. They, more than anyone else, understand how important it is that their credits have meaning and value. A rigorous process is vital for making sure that remains the case.

5. Fees Are Based on the Evaluation Service Provided, Not on the Number of Credits Awarded. Though there are some institutions that charge fees based on the number of credits awarded, CAEL strongly advocates that institutions charge PLA fees based on the number of credits to be evaluated, or based on a flat fee.  This ensures that institutions do not award a greater number of credits in order to generate more tuition revenue.

PLA is far too rigorous a process to be seen as an easy credit handout. In fact, it is such a rigorous process that many adults think it would have been easier to just “take the course and get an easy grade.”  And colleges must have a way to respond to the needs of people like Roger, for whom not having a formal degree is a real roadblock.

Thanks to PLA, Roger was able to apply his computer knowledge to upper level college credits in courses such as Systems Analysis and Design, Project Management and Technical Writing. He is now further along in his quest for a degree than he would otherwise be. All because PLA gave him a leg up, not a hand out.


Pamela Tate is the President and CEO of CAEL, and Becky Klein-Collins is a Senior Policy Consultant for the organization. Information about prior learning assessments, including publications and online workshops, can be found on CAEL's Web site.

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