The Benefits of PLA: Prior Learning Assessments

In addition to fears regarding scheduling and money, potential college students might worry about wasting time in classes they don't need, covering material they've already learned in high school classes or even in careers. This especially holds true for adults considering a return to higher education. Enter PLA, or Prior Learning Assessments, a method schools can use to assign credit for material students know before taking a class.

By Eric Garneau


Come out and PLA

A recent study conducted by CAEL (The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning) has confirmed what to some may have seemed like conventional wisdom - when college students earn credit for material they already know, they tend to show more positive academic results. A variety of factors could explain this correlation. Are students who earn PLA credits already more motivated? Do the credits obtained give those learners the necessary kick to actually succeed in their degree programs more frequently? Regardless of the reasons, the statistical link is clear: PLA credits produce noteworthy academic results in several key areas.

A note on this study's methodology: in keeping with their status as an adult education interest group, CAEL examined only college students aged 25 years and older. To obtain their sample they drew from 48 volunteer universities of various size, financial orientations (public/private, for-profit/not-for-profit) and degree programs. Additionally, all colleges selected were required to have PLA programs in place before 2001, since all students in the study enrolled in the 2001-2 school year and were tracked through 2008. Finally, the schools in the study had to have a fair portion of students who didn't use PLA credits, to allow for reasonable comparison. What three benefits did CAEL find for students who take advantage of PLA programs?

Increased Graduation Rate

According to CAEL, 56% of the PLA students surveyed earned degrees in the study's 7-year span. Meanwhile, only 21% of the surveyed non-PLA students could say the same. That's a fairly startling statistic; both numbers seem awfully low, although keep in mind this study looks at students 25 years and older only (the on-time graduation national average for all students sits somewhere around 40%). Additionally, of those students who didn't graduate within those seven years, 56% of PLA students had completed 80% or more of their necessary degree requirements, compared with only 22% of non-PLA learners.

More Persistence in Degree-seeking

In a related finding, CAEL reports that PLA learners showed a greater degree of consistency and persistence while enrolled in college. In total, 60% of non-PLA students did not continue schooling after their first year; on the other hand, only 37% of PLA students quit after that time. Overall, PLA students showed a much higher propensity for continuing their education not just to a second year but through years three, four and beyond. Additionally, PLA students were much more likely to continue their credit-earning consecutively, while non-PLA students were more likely to have gap years in their education.

Lessened Time to Graduation

The least statistically significant benefit to PLA found by CAEL, but still one worth mentioning, is that PLA students tended to cut down on the time they spent earning their degree. Specific time saved here correlates with the number of PLA credits students had earned, but in general bachelor's degree candidates with PLA credit shaved an average of 2.5-10.1 months off their time in school. For those seeking associate's degrees, the time savings generally spanned 1.5-4.5 months.

Benefits to the Institution

Clearly PLA programs benefit students, but they can also help the schools that host them. For instance, they can provide a major selling point for schools looking to attract adult learners; those most flexible in offering PLA credits might have an easier time enticing enrollments. By the same token, those PLA programs also engender student loyalty; learners are inclined to feel more indebted to schools that have helped speed along their degree-earning process. Finally, PLA programs may allow schools to operate more efficiently - less students in the classroom for less time means that institutions feeling a budget crunch can streamline their operations.


When schools allow their charges to earn PLA credits, they take a significant step towards eliminating some of those things college students most fear: spending too much time in school and having too little money. CAEL estimates that students with PLA credits can save from $1,605-$6,000 over the course of their schooling, depending on the type of institution they attend and how much credit they earn. Certainly those figures aren't insignificant. When schools reward students for prior education and life experience, they help students reward themselves by feeling better about the educational path on which they're about to embark.

If you're an adult looking to return to college, here are some options you can consider.

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