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How to Make Prior Learning Assessment Credit Work for You

Aug 16, 2011

A recent study undertaken by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has shown a significant correlation between the application of PLA (Prior Learning Assessment) credit and a successful college experience. Depending on what an institution supports, students can earn PLA credit through standardized tests, portfolio assessment, career experience and more. But how do students use that credit once they earn it?

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By Eric Garneau

PLA credit prior learning assessment

Ways to Apply PLA

If you're fortunate enough to attend a school that embraces PLA credit, something CAEL calls 'overlooked,' there are probably many different ways you can apply that credit to your degree. It should be noted that some institutions place a cap on the amount of PLA credits students can earn, and also on ways in which that credit can be applied. However, many schools are fairly flexible in their PLA application. Unsurprisingly, that flexibility leads to greater benefits for students.

Fulfill Course Requirements

Among the most popular ways schools allow students to use PLA credits is to pass out of required courses. In 94% of the institutions CAEL surveyed, students could put those credits toward fulfilling electives. Similarly, 88% of schools in the study allowed students to use PLA credits in place of general education classes. Less popular but still significant, 79% of the schools studied let students use PLA credits to fulfill requirements within their major.

Gain Advanced Credit

Schools' next most favored PLA option was to use credits earned to place students on advanced learning tracks. Depending on the specific institution, that can grant students additional credit, access to more difficult courses and better opportunities for networking and career placement. CAEL reported that 69% of schools in their study found this an acceptable use of PLA credit.

Waive Prerequisites

Just below the ability to obtain advanced standing, 67% of the schools in CAEL's study allowed students to put their PLA credit toward waiving prerequisite courses. In an undergraduate setting, that might mean testing out of 100-level campus requirements that you might have mastered in high school such as basic composition or a foreign language requirement. For graduate school students, waiving prerequisites might put you on a faster track towards learning specialized disciplines like medicine and law that often require significant classroom and real-world experience.

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Giving Students the Best Chance

In their report, CAEL separated what they call 'PLA Institutional Policies' into four categories, using those listed above but breaking course requirements down along 'major' and 'general education' lines. They found, as one might expect, that institutions allowing students to apply PLA credit in all four ways gave their charges the best chance of success. Specifically, PLA students there had a 58% graduation rate, compared with 12% of non-PLA students who graduated. Further, schools that had the most flexibility in applying PLA credits also saved their students the most time. On average, students at 4-year schools who had three or four different methods of PLA application available to them shaved 8.4-15.4 months off their degree completion time. For students who only had one or two methods of PLA credit available to them, that savings was reduced to an average of 6.4-8 months, though even in those cases a benefit to PLA students was still clear.

If CAEL's findings are correct, PLA credits are a relatively untapped method to help give students of all types a serious advantage in earning a college degree. If you think previous education or life experiences might earn you college credit, check with some schools to see if they agree. Obtaining a college degree might be more within reach than you think.

You've made your PLA credit work to your advantage - what else can you do to make the most of your college experience?

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