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Making Learning Outside the Classroom Count

CAP Event Explores Prior Learning Assessments

Experts and leading practitioners gathered at the Center for American Progress on Wednesday to discuss prior learning assessments, or PLAs, and what these innovative education tools mean, how they’re used, and how they can be improved and expanded. The event highlighted many of the analyses and policy recommendations in a policy brief, also released on Wednesday, co-authored by CAP and the Center for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL.

“What PLAs do is translate [work experience] for the market into recognizable academic credit so that [students] can take their rightful place in the workforce and have greater portability that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Greg von Lehmen, provost at the University of Maryland University College, who participated in a panel discussion at the event.

PLAs provide an extremely valuable tool for adult, mobile, and other nontraditional learners who enter or re-enter the postsecondary education system with learning acquired outside the traditional classroom. They measure what a student has learned outside of the college classroom, evaluate whether that learning is college level, and then determine the equivalent number of college credits.

PLAs take the shape of individual student portfolios—typically done through a semester-long course that helps students develop portfolios of their past experience—as well as evaluations of corporate, military, or apprenticeship training. With PLAs, students can then skip introductory or mid-level courses, the material of which they’ve absorbed through their outside experiences, and move straight to higher-level courses, saving time and money for the student.

At the event, Chari Leader Kelley, senior consultant for higher education services at CAEL, gave a presentation on the effects of PLAs. Leader Kelley, a PLA veteran herself, explained that after researching more than 62,000 students at 48 postsecondary institutions, the “PLA effect” is obvious: 56 percent of PLA students earn a postsecondary degree within seven years, while only 21 percent of non-PLA students did so. Leader Kelley also noted how PLA benefits did not differ when analyzed across demographics.

“One thing that we found with the PLA effect is that it’s equal,” Leader Kelley said. “There are no differences in terms of the PLA value despite racial, ethnic, institutional types, or whether you’re a financial aid student or not.”

The event continued with a panel discussion featuring two prominent proponents of PLAs, von Lehmen and Joyce M. Judy, president of the Community College of Vermont. Each described their institutions, the manner in which PLAs function within those systems, and the benefits derived by both student and institution. Both also emphasized the positive influence PLAs have on the persistence of students, something Leader Kelley described as well.

“Our internal data show that students that go through prior learning graduate faster, are more likely to graduate in six years, and they graduate at a higher rate,” von Lehmen said.

Judy explained how PLAs can be a great tool for encouraging potential students to come back to school. According to Judy, when these individuals discover that they could drastically reduce the amount of time and money needed to complete a degree, they are more inclined to return to the classroom.

“These are students who we strongly believe wouldn’t be in college,” Judy said. “They wouldn’t get started unless they could see a way to jumpstart it.”

Judy shared the story of Cindy Fitzgerald, a divorced 27-year-old mother with a young daughter. Ms. Fitzgerald had no prior postsecondary degree but had worked her way to financial planner at the National Life Insurance Company. She wanted to continue her ascent in the finance industry but her life was too complicated—with a full-time job and a young child—to start at the beginning of a college program.

Ms. Fitzgerald enrolled in the Community College of Vermont’s Assessment of Prior Learning course and applied her knowledge of the finance industry to earn 60 credits toward a college degree.

According to Judy, “She didn’t get these credits for her experience. She got these credits for the learning she had accumulated … through her position at National Life Insurance Company.”

Ms. Fitzgerald earned a college degree a year later. She is now a securities examiner for the State of Vermont.

Gerri Fiala, deputy assistant secretary for employment and training at the U.S. Department of Labor, also spoke at the event and stressed the link between getting more adults college degrees and improving employment rates.

“PLAs are creative tools that can improve employment outcomes,” Fiala said. “They can better connect employers to the skilled workers they need and increase credential attainment as well as provide cost-effective postsecondary education and training.”

Among the many challenges facing PLAs, including the resistance of other institutions and professors to accept PLA credit as equal to other credit, von Lehmen and Judy—as well as discussion moderator Amy Sherman, the associate vice president for policy and strategic alliances at CAEL—agreed that lack of exposure to students was one of the biggest.

“When you ask institutions, you find a startlingly high number that say they have PLA, but when you ask students if they know about it, you find that a startling number know nothing about it,” Sherman said.

As a solution, the panel agreed that at the policy level, it was important to involve strategic leaders, especially if those leaders could get some direct exposure to what the programs involve.

“So much of it is about if they can experience a student that has gone through the course, or participate in the evaluation process,” Judy said. “You can pick strategic leaders who perhaps are resistant or have a lot of questions and somehow get them involved with a student that has gone through a PLA … and I think they would say ‘of course’ … because it is so convincing.”

For more information on this event, see its event page.