Copyright Helps Students Save Time and Money

Prior learning assessments (PLA) can help students get a head start on getting credits to put toward a college degree. is aiding students obtain an education by showing them what PLA forms they might qualify for and providing academic advising.

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by Stacy Redd

Learning works with lifelong learners so they can assess what life experiences they have that can translate into college credit. Along with being able to complete their degrees quicker by earning PLA credits, these students can also save money on their education. Cathy Brigham, the Director of Academic Programs and Dean of the Faculty for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), explains the various ways can aid learners. Could you tell me about what does?

Cathy Brigham: I usually describe it to people as offering three services. First, it's a one stop shop for all PLA formats. This might include military transcripts that the student has available to them. It could be any standardized exam format, such as a CLEP, DSST, or Excelsior exam. Or it could be an individualized portfolio. So the first thing that offers the students is information on all of these formats of PLA, how PLA can be helpful, and how it might accelerate degree completion while also saving money.

The second offering is free academic advising - at no commitment. A student, or someone who's considering becoming a student, would contact and ask for an advising session. It's usually a 30-minute session where the student talks about their background, their academic and career goals, and how their academic plan might map to these career goals. These advising sessions usually result in one of four outcomes.

  • The student might be referred to the College Board to take a CLEP exam. Whenever there's a CLEP available, we recommend that option for students. A CLEP exam takes 90 minutes to complete and costs only $77 - clearly this is a cost-effective and timely way for students to earn PLA credits.
  • The student might be referred to ACE (the American Council on Education) to request transcripts that might already be waiting for them. This is often the case for students who have completed military or corporate training.
  • The student might be referred to more conventional learning environments. Not every student is a good match for PLA - you have to be pretty self-motivated and have an ability to articulate your learning. Not every student is able to think about their learning in this way, or, may not have learning that is at the college-level.

Finally, the student might be referred to And this is the third thing that offers - an opportunity build and submit an individualized portfolio for review. If this is the case, the student would sign up for an online, accelerated course. They actually enroll with a cohort of students, and the course is taught by a faculty member. The work is asynchronous, so they can complete it whenever they need to. Also, the course has been evaluated by ACE so when the student passes the course, they also have achieved a recommendation for three undergraduate credits.

The cost of the course is $500. It's a high-touch course, which means that there is a lot of feedback. It's also a writing intensive course, so there is a fair amount of work for the student involved in the course. But because we keep the enrollments low, there's the potential for a lot of interaction between the student and the instructor. How did get started?

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CB: In 2010, CAEL published a research study on PLA and links to other academic outcomes. What we found was that students with PLA were two and a half times more likely to graduate within seven years than non-PLA users. The funder of that report, Lumina Foundation, challenged us to figure out how to act on the report's findings - to determine how we could best help schools expand their PLA programs. We launched as a resource for individual learners, but also for schools that wanted to offer this for learners, but didn't have the resources to do so. How did you get involved with

CB: I had known about CAEL (the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning - the founding organization of for many years. I was the Dean of a College of Adult Education at a small, private school in Austin, Texas, and I was a member of CAEL in that role. I started working with CAEL right when they were launching, which was a very exciting time in the organization. And now I oversee all the academic areas of the program. You had mentioned that once a student meets with an academic advisor, you determine whether you would recommend them for a standardized exam, an existing transcript,, or maybe a more traditional learning environment. Is there an opportunity for them to have a combination of all of these?

CB: All PLA formats could be resources for students. It will depend on the learning that the student has. A lot of service-affiliated, or military, students, for example, have a strong background in government and history. So there are tests that are available for them that would be good matches. And, of course, with that population, much of their military training is likely already evaluated for credit through ACE. I think one of the things that's really, really great about CLEP is that it's flexible. Are there other PLAs beside the CLEP that you recommend?

CB: Another standardized exam that we often refer students to is the DSST exam. Excelsior College also offers a wide array of standardized exams. Do you promote OpenCourseWare a lot to students?

CB: We do. We see students who have participated in some available classes, lectures, or seminars that are online, and they want to know how they can then articulate that learning and possibly receive college-level credit from it. Is there a typical type of student or a set of characteristics that tend to make a student a good match for

CB: A successful student will be comfortable in an online learning environment. That doesn't mean they need experience with learning in an online environment, so long as they are comfortable with the idea of it, and comfortable with basic technology. They also need to have college-level learning that is able to be articulated. We help identify these areas during the free advising process so that no one wastes their time or money going through a process that may not be right for them.

Find out more about how you can make prior learning assessments work for you.

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