By: Alison Hansen, Associate Director at Thomas Edison State College & Navy wife
If you are interested in completing your college degree, you might have heard about prior learning assessment, commonly referred to as “PLA.” The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) defines prior learning assessment as “the evaluation and assessment of an individual’s life learning for college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training.” If you think that sounds complicated, you are not alone. I work in higher education and prior learning assessment can still seem like an abstract concept, so I thought I would offer some translation. Prior learning assessment is a way for students to save time and money by using knowledge gained outside of the classroom to earn credit towards a college degree. It means you can earn college credit for what you already know! There are several forms of prior learning assessment.
In high school, many of us learn about Advanced Placement(AP)courses (link to: https://apstudent.collegeboard.org/home). This was my first foray into college credit, as it is for many high school students. AP courses taken during high school culminate with a LONG exam (or so I thought at the time); however, some colleges will apply those credits towards an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Next, examination programs are another popular form of PLA; these are pass/fail exams designed for independent learners. With an exam program, you do not take a formal course – just the exam. Popular credit-by-exam programs include the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) (https://clep.collegeboard.org/) and DSST (https://getcollegecredit.com/). Some institutions offer credit-by-exams of their own. Some examples include TECEP® exams (https://www.tesc.edu/degree-completion/Testing.cfm), offered through Thomas Edison State College (www.tesc.edu), Excelsior College® Examinations (ECE) (https://www.excelsior.edu/ecapps/exams/creditByExam.jsf?gw=1#browse) and UExcel offered through Excelsior College (www.excelsior.edu). Taking a credit-by-exam program can be daunting, even when you study for a whole semester, so take advantage of sample exams and study guides available for most of the exams, or consider taking a MOOC (massive open online courses) in the subject area you would like to take the exam. These are free courses offered online. More information on MOOCs can be found at https://chronicle.com/article/What-You-Need-to-Know-About/133475/)
For Service Members and Veterans
Additionally, other commonly used forms of PLA include military transcripts. Active duty military members and veterans can earn college credit by submitting their Joint Service Transcript (https://jst.doded.mil), Coast Guard transcript (https://www.uscg.mil/hq/cgi/active_duty/go_to_college/assessment.asp) or Air Force transcript (https://www.au.af.mil/au/ccaf/transcripts.asp) to an institution for evaluation. Colleges and universities can grant transfer credit based on the recommendations made by the American Council on Education (ACE) (https://www.acenet.edu/higher-education/topics/Pages/Transcript-Services.aspx). Please note that colleges and universities are not required to abide by ACE’s recommendations, so it is best to ask prior to application if the credits will be accepted from military training (and where they may be utilized as free electives not in main area of study).
Further, some colleges and universities award credit for certifications, licensures, professional training and employer training that has been evaluated by ACE’s College Credit Recommendation Service or the National College Credit Recommendation Service (https://www.nationalccrs.org/). And, some institutions assess professional training to award college credit. The Office for Assessment of Professional and Workplace Learning at Thomas Edison State College reviews professional licenses and certifications (https://www.tesc.edu/degree-completion/Licenses-Certifications.cfm) as well as specific training, apprenticeships, courses and exams in order to award credit.
Volunteerism for Credit?
Colleges and universities can also award credit for knowledge gained outside of the classroom by offering the option of putting together a portfolio, which showcases a student’s past work experience, volunteer experience and/or professional training. Students typically develop portfolios with a content matter expert. A portfolio documents the college-level knowledge a student possesses and how that knowledge matches the learning outcomes in a college course. This is becoming more popular with adult learners and the colleges that serve them.
With so many options available, it is entirely possible for students to create their own path towards a degree. Students are no longer required to sit in a packed lecture hall to meet the requirements of their degree, which is especially beneficial to the non-traditional student, which I think we can all relate to!
Some key things to know about PLA and earning credit for what you already know:
- Every school awards credit differently. School A may not award the same credit as School B. Be careful when transferring. Again, not colleges and universities are required to abide by ACE’s recommendation.
- When researching the school you would like to attend, ask whether they have a prior learning assessment program or other non-traditional credit sources. The Admissions Office should be able to assist you, but if not, ask to speak to the part of the College you are going to attend (i.e. School of Business).
- You can save time and money by taking advantage of the examination programs, but you must study for them. These are typically pass/fail exams and taking them multiple times may not be cost effective.