The Current State of Prior Learning Policies
By Rosa M. García, Center for Law and Social Policy and Sarah Leibrandt, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education
The recognition of prior learning occurs in a complex environment, affected by institutional policies, practices, and business models, as well as a complicated state and federal policy landscape. Many current and future students have acquired a great deal of college-level learning through their day-to-day lives outside of academia: knowledge acquired from work experience, such as on-the-job training, formal corporate training, training through non-corporate employers like government or nonprofit employers, military training, apprenticeships, and volunteer work; knowledge gained from civic engagement and service learning, community-based social justice projects, and self-study, and myriad other extra-institutional learning opportunities available through low-cost or no-cost online sources. Students can earn credit for this learning through a process commonly known as Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). The concept of PLA has been around since World War II and the G.I. Bill when postsecondary institutions began thinking of ways to help military veterans earn academic credit for their military experiences. In the 1970s, incumbent workers and military veterans saw a further increase in opportunities to earn credit for their prior experiences. In recent decades, PLA has also been largely associated with high-achieving high school students who have had opportunities to access AP and IB courses and receive credit for prior learning when they enter college.
As demographics of postsecondary students continue to shift and the nation’s colleges and universities continue to enroll greater numbers of students who do not meet the profile of the traditional college students entering college directly from high school, PLA policies and practices must be more inclusive of the types of learning and work-based experiences that students of color, students with low incomes, immigrants, and adult learners bring to the classroom. The nation’s higher education system is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before, with students of color comprising nearly half of all undergraduates. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis, 64 percent of students worked while in college (including 40 percent working full time), 37 percent are over the age 25, and a quarter are parents. Adult working students, who are likely to have experience that meets the college-level learning standard, and who must balance work, school, and family obligations can benefit greatly from credit for prior learning to complete their postsecondary credentials.
Types of Prior Learning Assessment
Many students – as well as potential students – have acquired a great deal of college-level knowledge and skills through their day-to-day lives outside of academia: from work experience, on-the-job training, formal corporate training, military training, volunteer work, self-study, and myriad other extra-institutional learning opportunities available through low-cost or no-cost online sources.
The process for recognizing and awarding credit for college-level learning acquired outside of the classroom is often referred to as Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). There are several ways students can demonstrate this learning and earn credit for it in college. The various partners involved in creating this series of briefs are examining different types of PLA and using the following general descriptions of the different methods.
- Standardized examination: Students can earn credit by successfully completing exams such as Advanced Placement (AP), College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Excelsior exams (UExcel), DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST), and others.
- Faculty-developed challenge exam: Students can earn credit for a specific course by taking a comprehensive examination developed by campus faculty.
- Portfolio-based and other individualized assessment: Students can earn credit by preparing a portfolio and/or demonstration of their learning from a variety of experiences and non-credit activities. Faculty then evaluate the student’s portfolio and award credit as appropriate.
- Evaluation of non-college programs: Students can earn credit based on recommendations provided by the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) and the American Council on Education (ACE) that conduct evaluations of training offered by employers or the military. Institutions also conduct their own review of programs, including coordinating with workforce development agencies and other training providers to develop crosswalks that map between external training/credentials and existing degree programs.
While other briefs in this series focus on the institutional policies and practices of prior learning assessment, this brief highlights federal, state, and accreditation policies related to PLA. This brief first summarizes findings from previous state policy scans and then offers suggestions for how policies can better support students of color, students with low incomes, immigrants, and adult learners by addressing issues of transparency, affordability, inclusion, and evaluation. This brief concludes with recommendations for policymakers and accreditors and ideas for future research.