What would you say if someone told you that, simply by submitting a properly prepared portfolio or taking a few tests, you could earn college credit and shave months or sometimes years off your degree program? Sound too good to be true?
It’s not. Prior learning assessment (PLA) is a mechanism by which an institution of higher learning can assess your previous work experience and translate it to credits toward your degree program. This may save you money and reduce the amount of time you have to take off work to get a degree – or at least the amount of time you have to double up on duties.
If you’re skeptical about going back to school for your degree, it’s time to learn the answers to some of your burning questions about PLA. Let’s take a brief look at its history and how it works, benefits and a few limitations, who it’s good for, and a few illuminating statistics.
A Brief History of Prior Learning Assessments
We can arguably trace prior learning assessment back to the late 19th century – as early as the 18th century, according to some – when distance education courses started popping up, enabling students to get credit for learning that took place outside the university sphere. They could then take those credits to a college or university later, or simply earn the degree entirely remotely. For those living in remote areas, or who had no choice but to start working immediately after high school, this innovation was a huge benefit.
Today, however, PLA has additional applications than just in distance learning. True, the two share the novel outside-college characteristic (novel in the 1800s, at least), as well as enabling work without giving up the degree opportunity. However, prior learning assessment exists specifically to translate non-college work into college credits.
In the mid-20th century, PLA began to take the shape we recognize today. According to Inside Higher Ed, the American Council on Education (ACE), has offered credit for military training and education since 1945. The same source tells us that ACE, after 40 years of refusing to consider offering credit for McDonald’s Hamburger University, is now considering doing so.
Today, the resistance to offering credit through prior learning assessment has all but disappeared at most colleges and universities. They recognize that there’s more value to be had in enabling students to jumpstart degree programs than there is in blocking them. That’s lucky for you; it’s never been a better time to try and leverage this new opportunity.
How Does PLA Work, Exactly?
The main mechanism of PLA is assessing your work experience to find comparable value to college degree program credits. In some cases, you can leverage PLA toward graduate degrees, but usually it pertains to associate and bachelor’s degree programs.
Adults who have spent considerable time in the workforce can earn credit for the following:
- Professional certifications
- Military training
- Military service
- Independent study
- Continuing education
- National examinations
- Civic activities
- Workplace training
- Volunteer work
In some cases, credits from other universities that are technically expired may also be considered, though you shouldn’t count on it.
PLA may be earned in several ways, explains Best Colleges. For one thing, you can “take a subject-specific examination” from CLEP, DSST or the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs to assess your mastery of a specific subject. Alternatively, you have the option of earning credit through skills assessments, measured through papers and exams, but without the emphasis on attending physical classes. Or, says the American Council on Education, you can earn credit through compiling a portfolio in which you make a case for specific work experience substituting for specific credits.
Some institutions of higher learning even offer a full course in PLA, helping students craft the portfolios that they will then present to the college or university.
It is important to note that even if you have work or life experience that could technically qualify for PLA credits in a vacuum, you won’t necessarily be able to apply that credit toward your degree. Typically, experience only counts if it relates to your planned degree path now. The upside of a prior learning assessment is that there’s no harm in submitting any pertinent life experience you might have and seeing if you can’t get credit for it.
Lastly, high school students can take International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement exams to skip college credit and cut the time and money they’ll have to spend on their degree.
No grade is assigned during the assessment, so you can confidently approach the process without worrying that you will somehow drag down your grade point average. The tests and portfolio assessment are non-graded, so they simply check off requisite boxes without making an impact on your GPA.
What Are Some Limitations of PLA?
Though PLA is an excellent way to get started on your education, it does have some limits. For one thing, most institutions have a credit cap, which means you are limited in the number of credits you can earn, no matter how much pertinent experience you have.
Also, not all PLA credits are transferable. If you take the time and trouble to earn PLA credits, you should probably finish your degree program at that college or university, as credits may not transfer. If you do decide to transfer to another institution, make sure you do it with full knowledge of whether or not your credits will go with you.
Also, know that earning credit and waiving course requirements is not the same thing. Some institutions will recognize your mastery of a certain subject and allow you to level out of a requisite course. However, that doesn’t mean they will award you credit toward your degree, warns the American Council on Education. Don’t make the mistake of confusing the two, or you may find yourself “ready” to graduate without the credits you need to do so.
What Are the Benefits of Prior Learning Assessment for Students?
PLA offers students a huge number of benefits. As discussed, it can save substantial time and money. McDonald’s Hamburger University transmutes to an average 23 college credits, explains Inside Higher Ed, which many community colleges accept.
If we assume a term is 16 credits, that’s more than a full term. In fact, by that math, it’s closer to one and a half terms. Because many nontraditional students can’t afford to attend school full-time but must instead take one or two classes per semester/trimester, this equates to shaving off three or four terms, putting them a full year closer to their degrees. And that’s just McDonald’s.
Other benefits include:
- Enabling students who weren’t able to afford college right out of high school to go back and get it
- Helping students who live in remote areas earn credit (just like distance education) toward programs
- Accelerating progress via access to higher-level courses than students might otherwise be able to take
- As a result, engaging them more deeply in the material, which increases the retention rate of students who go back to school
- Improving resumes with more college credit and better skills
- Offering students a deeper understanding of fields they’re already in, increasing their chances of promotion in their fields
What Do the Stats Say?
The numbers don’t lie; prior learning assessment substantially increases the chances of students earning a degree. According to the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning:
- 13 percent of students who earn PLA credit get an associate degree, as opposed to only 6 percent who did not earn PLA credit, more than doubling the chances of successfully achieving the degree
- 43 percent of students who earn PLA credit get a bachelor’s degree, as opposed to only 15 percent who did not earn PLA credit, nearly tripling the chances of successfully achieving the degree
- 44 percent of students who earned PLA credit didn’t earn a degree or credential, while 78 percent who did not earn PLA credit also didn’t earn any degree or credential, close to halving the number of students who don’t graduate
It’s clear that, above and beyond all other benefits, the main perk of getting PLA credit is that the chances are much higher of you achieving your higher education goals.
Again, though, these benefits hinge on actually being able to earn that credit. In order to do so, you must realistically assess what your existing skills are and find the courses that teach those skills. The whole idea is that you can prove you don’t need that particular course and should therefore be freed from having to take it.
Who Should Consider Attempting PLA Credits?
This is a good question. Before you decide to go back to school at all, and especially before you decide to invest in the time, effort, and money of PLA – as most national exams for credit cost money – you should definitely think about whether this is the right move for you. PLA is probably right for people who have:
- Spent time – at least a few years – in a single field, rather than bouncing around from job to job
- Served in the armed forces
- Worked in entry-level jobs in medicine, law, offices, and more
- Earned non-degree licenses or certifications
- Engaged in continuing education for those licenses or certifications
- Undergone significant workplace training
- Belonged to an organization or done service work
However, even if none of the above seems quite right, don’t give up too easily on the prospect of earning credit. Many people assume that since they’ve worked retail, customer service, or hospitality since high school, they’re not eligible. Often, however, that’s not true. These jobs frequently teach valuable skills, such as:
If you’re not sure whether prior learning assessments are right for you, you can take the PLA Readiness Quiz here. It will help you assess your work and life experience and determine whether now is the right time to translate that experience into college credit and start down the path to a degree.
How Do You Get Started?
If you’re ready to start the PLA process, the first step is to get in touch with a university that offers it. That might mean a physical college or university, or a hybrid educational institution (both on-campus and online) or a distance learning organization. Here at Post University, for instance, we would love to offer you information about what it takes to earn a degree using prior learning assessment credits.
We invite you to get in touch with us by calling 800.660.6615 or contacting us today. Our friendly team is here to answer your questions and put you on the right track toward your dreams, so don’t wait to come say hi.