Availability, Use and Value of Prior Learning Assessment within Community Colleges

By Brigham, Cathy; Klein-Collins, Rebecca | The Catalyst, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Availability, Use and Value of Prior Learning Assessment within Community Colleges


Brigham, Cathy, Klein-Collins, Rebecca, The Catalyst


The national imperative to improve postsecondary degree completion has led to various innovations within colleges and universities to improve student retention and academic success, particularly of nontraditional learners. One innovation that has been in use since the 1970s, but is often under-promoted and under-utilized within institutions, is Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA.

What is PLA?

PLA is the process by which many colleges evaluate for academic credit the college-level knowledge and skills an individual has gained outside of the classroom, including from employment (e.g., on-thejob training, employer-developed training), military training/service, travel, hobbies, civic activities and volunteer service.

Many students with work experience, for example, have technical and workrelated competencies that have been acquired in the workplace. Colleges that recognize that prior learning and offer ways to evaluate it for college credit can help those students progress more quickly towards a postsecondary degree or credential, saving the student (and in many cases, the employer) both time and tuition dollars.

There are many different methods of offering PLA, including standardized exams (e.g., Advanced Placement-AP, College Level Examination Program-CLEP), challenge exams, evaluation of non-collegiate instruction, and portfolio assessments. These methods, when carried out according to nationally-established standards, can establish whether the student has college-level skills and competencies that are worthy of college credit.

Benefits of PLA

In addition to PLA saving students time and money, student advisors have told CAEL that earning PLA credit can motivate students to persist in their studies and complete their degrees. It can be quite powerful for students to hear that not only can they learn at the college level, but they already have learned at the college level. A recent CAEL study of more than 62,000 adult students at 48 institutions nationwide supports this claim with results showing that students with PLA credit had higher graduation rates, better persistence and lower time to degree, compared to students without PLA credit. These results were true at institutions of all sizes, controls and levels, and for students of different age, gender, race/ethnicity, and academic ability.

Study of PLA in Community Colleges

In 2010, CAEL conducted an exploratory study of PLA in community colleges. Subjects included community colleges involved in postsecondary success initiatives such as the Applied Baccalaureate program and the Achieving the Dream initiative, as well as community colleges in states with robust career pathways initiatives. CAEL supplemented the survey responses with phone interviews with 15 institutional representatives. The purpose of this study was to learn more about the availability and use of PLA within these colleges.

This research was not defined by a specific geographic location. The online survey was distributed nationally in Spring 2010 and was completed by 88 respondents, 81 of whom identified themselves by institutional name, and for whom we could therefore discern a physical location. The respondents for whom we have names represent 20 different states: Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington.

Summary of Findings

From 88 individual respondents, CAEL learned the following about PLA in community colleges:

Community colleges are largely familiar with PLA and most of the respondents said that their institution offers it already. In particular:

* 64% offer portfolio assessments

* 90% accept CLEP exam credit

* 93% accept AP exam credit

* 85% offer challenge exams

* 82% use the ACE Guides to award credit to students with military transcripts

Although PLA is an official offering in most respondents' institutions, it is not used by large numbers of students at these institutions.

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Availability, Use and Value of Prior Learning Assessment within Community Colleges
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