Completion with Quality and Value: Why Credit for Prior Learning Stands out as a College Completion Fund Strategy

While the fate of the Build Back Better Act is currently unclear, there are parts of the proposed legislation that could survive in some form. One important part of the proposal is the College Completion Fund, a fund that could provide as much as $550 million for scaling evidence-based programs to improve retention and completion at institutions with an above-average number of historically underserved students. The fund is right to focus on evidence-based strategies, particularly programs that provide comprehensive student supports like advising, tutoring, financial support, transportation assistance and more. But in determining how the CCF might be dispersed, states receiving these funds should also consider the range of programs that have particular effectiveness in supporting the college completion of working adult learners who make up nearly 40 percent of all undergraduates today. 

An Important Completion Tool for Adult Learners: Credit for Prior Learning

For adult learners, an important evidence-based college completion strategy is the awarding of Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) (also known as Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA). Many adults, when they return to college after many years in the workplace or in the military, bring considerable learning from both formal training and from on-the-job learning. Colleges that offer CPL evaluate that learning and award college credit where it is due. Earning credit through CPL saves those students time and money — and probably frustration as well since they don’t have to sit through courses in subjects they have already mastered. 

Credit for prior learning can be a powerful completion tool, particularly for lower income students and students of color. In a recent 72-institution study conducted by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), we found that the seven-year completion rate for adult students without CPL credit was 27 percent, while the completion rate for those with CPL credit ranged from 49 to 73 percent, depending on the method of CPL used. This study also found that Black, Hispanic, lower-income, and community college students all experience a strong completion benefit from CPL. 

Barrier: CPL Fees Not Eligible Under Title IV, Leading to Inequities in CPL Access

Yet implementing CPL programs can be a challenge for institutions that serve these students because offering this assessment-based pathway toward a degree is not without administrative and other costs to the institution. A comprehensive CPL approach requires financial resources to cover the costs of standardized exams, non-standardized exam development, faculty evaluation of learning portfolios, review of non-credit instruction, advising, student support, and program administration. The solution for many institutions is to charge fees for CPL, but these fees are generally not allowable expenses under current Title IV regulations, resulting in students having to pay out of pocket for many forms of CPL. This may lead to inequitable access to CPL, particularly for Black and lower income adult learners (see discussion of this challenge in a recent CAEL-WICHE research report). The proposed College Completion Fund provides a unique opportunity for federal education resources to support CPL strategies at institutions serving lower income adults and students of color. 

How Institutions Ensure Quality with CPL

The spending of federal dollars on alternative credit-awarding strategies of course raises questions around quality and academic integrity, so it’s important to note that colleges who have the capacity and resources to provide well-administered CPL programs adhere to quality standards for assessing learning and awarding credit.  All regional accreditors provide guidance to institutions on ensuring quality in the awarding of credit for prior learning, and many incorporate some or all of CAEL’s Ten Standards for Assessing Learning  (see examples of these standards in sidebar). The CPL guidelines from accreditors are often coupled with those for awarding transfer credit. In both cases — CPL and transfer credit — an institution needs to be assured that students have the learning for which credit is awarded. It all comes down to trust: if institutions are already trusted to have the expertise and authority to award transfer credit (and encouraged to do so), then they should also be trusted that they have that same expertise and authority with respect to decisions about awarding credit for prior learning. Quality assurance processes for CPL help to establish that trust, and they often mirror other procedures for ensuring academic quality at postsecondary institutions (see recent joint statement from AACRAO, CHEA, and ACE on this topic). 

Some common ways that institutions ensure quality in the awarding of credit for prior learning include:

  • Treating the awarding of credit for prior learning as an academic process. In her work with colleges and universities on CPL programs, Nan Travers, Director of Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning at SUNY-Empire State College emphasizes quality, integrity, and equity, noting that “when you recognize and assess learning, these are academic processes. Academic programs follow certain standards based on accreditation standards, field standards, and so on. And so you have to follow those same academic standards for [CPL].” Just as a faculty instructor in a college course will carefully assess student learning through a range of different methods before granting credit for that course, so, too, will faculty assessors evaluate the learning from outside the college classroom to determine whether to award credit for prior learning. 
  • Closely involving trained faculty subject matter experts on criteria for determining credit awards. At CUNY-School of Professional Studies, involvement of faculty is important for every type of learning assessment. According to [title] Jennifer Sparrow, SPS faculty are involved in decisions about whether exam credit can be applied to a major or for elective credit, and they are also involved in reviewing credit recommendations from third party evaluators such as the American Council on Education (ACE) or the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS). In addition, Sparrow works with faculty on the review of past student learning portfolios to norm them “so that we know we’re reading the rubric the same way” and are consistent in how credit is awarded. For the awarding of credit for professional training, CUNY starts the credit award process with an evaluation of professional learning using the CACE standards, and then submits the credit recommendation to the formal college governance process, including review and approval by an academic standing committee and then to a full governing council for a final vote. According to Sparrow, this kind of transparency in the awarding of credit “helps to build trust and confidence in the process.”  
  • Developing an oversight process to ensure adherence to quality standards in the awarding of credit. Once the right processes are in place that ensure quality in the awarding of credit through CPL, colleges can also establish centralized oversight and monitoring of the process. In the above CUNY example, the academic governance committee helps to provide that oversight, while at other institutions, like Mountwest Community and Technical College, the CPL administrative staff provide that oversight. 

Examples of CAEL’s Standards for Assessing Learning 

The guidelines and policies established by regional accreditors on CPL are based in many cases on part or all of CAEL’s Ten Standards for Assessing Learning. Examples of the CAEL standards include: 

CAEL Standard 1: Credit is awarded for evidence of learning, not for experience or time spent. In practice, this means that institutions do not simply review someone’s work history or resume and make a “best guess” about what the student knows and can do. Instead, there must be an official evaluation of evidence for specific learning outcomes or competencies that are then mapped to course or program requirements. This is essentially no different than how student learning is (or should be) evaluated in instructor-led courses. 

CAEL Standard 3: Assessment is based on criteria for outcomes that are clearly articulated and shared. Institutions are not awarding credit as part of a secret process but rather through a formal and transparent process, involving publicized lists of accepted cut scores, portfolio scoring rubrics, trained assessors, normed assessments, and feedback to the student if their learning does not qualify for a credit award. 

CAEL Standard 4. Determination of credit awards are made by appropriate subject matter experts. In high quality CPL programs, credit awards are determined by experts in the field who have deep knowledge of the competencies and learning outcomes required by courses and programs. This is a quality standard that is no different from how a student in an instructor-led course is evaluated and graded for credit. 

All ten CAEL standards are listed here and explained in detail in Assessing Learning: Quality Standards and Institutional Commitments (Marienau & Younger, 2017; 3rd edition).

CPL is Alternative Credit Earning Using Standard Academic Processes —and Should Be Supported by Postsecondary Public Policies

Credit for prior learning can be a powerful completion tool, particularly for lower income students and students of color. But these important student subgroups won’t be able to access that tool if the cost to provide CPL can only be covered through student fees. Federal and state resources are needed to offset the cost to students by covering the costs to institutions for providing CPL, and public officials can make such decisions while also requiring appropriate quality standards — standards that are already widely in use by colleges and universities with established CPL programs. The time is right for making this alternative pathway to a degree more accessible to those who need it most.