Giving college students credit for what they’ve learned in life and on the job – known as prior learning assessment – can save them up to $10,000 in tuition and a year of study, new data show. That helps students complete their degrees more quickly and at less cost, at a time when millions of people are seeking new or better jobs during the COVID-induced recession.

We shared the new findings on prior learning assessment, or PLA, at a recent Lumina Foundation convening. They include data on more than 232,000 adult students, analyzed by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, in collaboration with 70 institutions. CAEL and WICHE found that PLA clearly helps students and the institutions where they learn.

One who benefited was Francisco Javier Arboli, who had 35 years of work experience before returning to school to work in media. As one of the student speakers at our convening, he told how an instructor tipped him off about PLA. That helped him save time and money as he earned a certificate in digital marketing at Miami Dade College. Even with a 2017 Emmy for ground-breaking work in television, he said he could have easily fallen through the cracks. PLA gave him the lift he needed.

Many others benefit, too, by earning credits for past learning, life experiences, and job or military training. Key findings from the CAEL and WICHE data show:

  • PLA boosts credential completion rates for adult students, and has the potential to close unfair, persistent equity gaps in degree and credential attainment. The boost for adult student completion is 17% for all PLA methods. This includes a boost of 14% for Black adults, 24% for Hispanic adults, 19% for Pell Grant recipients, and 25% for adult students at community colleges.
  • PLA saves adult students both time and money. Average adult student savings through PLA can amount to between $1,500 and $10,200, depending on the sector. And students who have 12 or more PLA credits can save nine to 14 months as they earn their degrees. (On average, students earned 15 PLA credits, or nearly a semester of full-time study).
  • Colleges and universities win, too. On average, adult students who received PLA took 17.6 more credits at their institutions than those without PLA credits. As panelist Matt Bergman of the University of Louisville put it, “Logic suggests that when you offer PLA, you’re taking away revenue. But if we just offer PLA, we have a net tuition gain.” Added panelist Cristy Sugarman of North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts, “Credit for PLA can attract students who otherwise would not enroll. It’s a selling point for the school.

Even so, uptake remains slow. While eight out of 10 U.S. institutions offer PLA options, barriers prevent students from understanding and using the process. Only about 11% of the students in this study received PLA credits. And PLA use was lowest among Black, female, and low-income students – the very students who often need help navigating education after high school.

The answer is clear: we must ensure prior learning assessments are easily available, accessible – and well-publicized and resourced. Let’s help more adult learners like Francisco (and others without Emmys) get credit for what they know and can do, paving the way for brighter futures through the power of learning.

[Wendy Sedlak, Ph.D., is the strategy director for research and evaluation at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation based in Indianapolis and committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.]

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