Rethinking PLA: The Urgency of Counting Prior Learning

As the country works toward economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are at least 10 million unemployed Americans, many of whom are looking to higher education as a pathway to their next career step. Now more than ever, adult learners are keenly aware of the return of investment they receive from higher education—and expecting it quickly.

These adult students, who have been in the workforce for years are often disappointed to discover that their previous experience gained in the workplace, through community involvement, self-study, and informal learning often go unrecognized by higher education institutions. This, in turn, has the potential to lengthen the time and cost of the degree—threatening the long-term return on their investment.

Institutions have an opportunity to better recognize the valuable life and career experiences adult students bring and offer them credit for it with Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). 

This long-standing practice has been used for decades to assess and offer credit for the multiplicity of life experiences that working learners bring to the table. PLA traces its earliest origins to the post-G.I. Bill era, when colleges and universities began to experiment with new methods of teaching and assessment to help returning veterans translate military experiences and credentials into academic credit. Today, a student with substantial academic credit and experience is fast-becoming the norm, rather than an outlier. Even before the pandemic, 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data indicated that 35 Million Americans over the age of 25 earned credits but did not finish their degree.

As returning adult learners have grown as a share of student demographics, the adoption of PLA has grown, as well. A 2020 study from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) found that eight out of ten institutions are using some form of PLA, and four out of ten have expanded it in the past three years.  

In practice, PLA can have a substantial impact on not only the cost, but the time to complete a degree. A recent report from Capella University found that students who earn academic credit through PLA spend less money, accumulate credits faster, and are more likely to persist in their program.

But despite its impact on persistence, completion and affordability, PLA has not been consistently used by institutions. The same AACRAO study found that at the surveyed institutions only eleven percent of students had earned credit from PLA, and Black students, Pell Grant recipients, and students living in lower-income communities were least likely to earn credit through PLA. To move PLA forward, colleges and universities must identify ways to make the process more accessible and less burdensome to learners and educators and ensure that competencies map clearly to credit-bearing course work within the institution. 

State and federal policymakers should consider ways to foster the adoption of PLA and help students cover the cost of applying prior learning. This includes exploring learnings from the Department of Education’s Experimental Site Initiative on PLA and considering federal or state subsidy options to help support adult students. These steps would require minimal resources and be a major step forward to accelerating adult re-enrollment and degree completion.

National higher education organizations are also taking steps that could help institutions more accurately capture and reflect previous experiences of adult students through PLA and similar practices.