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Credit for Life Experience: How a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) Can Benefit You

Nathan Wilgeroth / Abound: Finish College »

Year by year, the share of non-traditional college students over the age of 25 grows as an expanding majority. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, adults were finding it more and more necessary to start or return to college in order to get ahead in the workforce. Online learning and flexible scheduling can help any busy adult fit a college education into their schedule, but there is still one glaring difference between these older adults and the traditional, just-out-of-high-school 18-year-olds: lived experience. 

Going back to college as an adult doesn’t mean you’re behind; rather, it means that a lot of the learning you have done has happened outside of a classroom. Whether you carry some kind of license or certificate or have simply put plenty of hours into the workforce, it’s likely that you qualify for college credit through a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), a helpful tool that can save you both time and money in the pursuit of your degree.

What Is Prior Learning Assessment? 

According to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a Prior Learning Assessment “is a term for various methods that colleges, universities, and other education/training providers use to evaluate learning that has occurred outside of the traditional academic environment.” Other common terms for this process include Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) and recognition of learning.

More experiences can count toward college credit than you might think! As Carrie Phillips from Arkansas Tech University notes, “Academic credit for the student’s experiential learning may be derived from multiple means, including but not limited to: employer training programs, non-credit courses, training and education received through military service, documented work history, non-college courses, apprenticeships, and vocational or certification programs.” Schools offering non-traditional degree completion programs widely accept many past learning experiences for credit; however, how these experiences are actually measured varies across institutions. 

What Types of Assessments Can I Take? 

To measure your knowledge and skills in relevant areas, a school may ask you to complete one or more of the following assessments:

  • Portfolio-Based Assessments—Like a longer, more detailed résumé, a prior learning portfolio consists of a cover letter as well as documentation of past projects and successes. It is your way of making a case for your proficiency in a given topic. 
  • College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) Exams—Offered by College Board, the administrator of the SAT, CLEP exams are designed to help you test out of introductory college courses so that you can jump straight into more advanced, major-specific courses. Thousands of colleges readily accept credit earned through the CLEP.
  • DSST Credit by Exam Program—The DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST) is a PLA that serves the same purpose as the CLEP. Once administered for military students by the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), the DSST is now open to anyone looking to earn college credit. Both lower- and upper-level subjects can be assessed through the program’s 30+ exams.
  • Challenge Exams—Outside of the above standardized assessments, individual colleges or departments within an institution often develop their own PLAs to verify learning achievement. Keep an eye out for available challenge exams as your search for colleges and potential majors.
  • Evaluated Local Training—Some colleges take it upon themselves to evaluate non-collegiate training programs; this way, they can be sure that the skills taught independently still meet their own educational standards. 
  • American Council on Education (ACE) Guides—If you’re unsure of where to start in assessing your experience, the ACE publishes credit recommendations for formal instructional programs offered by non-collegiate agencies. Resources are available for both civilian and military learners alike. 

Beyond these assessments, some schools also invite students to enroll in a Prior Learning Assessment Course, a guided, short-term course that helps navigate the process of creating a portfolio or otherwise applying for college credit. At Southern Utah University, for example, “the prior learning assessment course is completed online over a 6-week period. Students take the time to document their formal or informal learning experiences by developing a portfolio or written summary.” This allows students to pursue their credit in a clearer, more structured way without enrolling into a standard course.

How Can a PLA Benefit You? 

The perks of a Prior Learning Assessment are clear! Regardless of the option(s) you choose, every passed assessment results in you earning college credits more quickly and at a lower cost than a full course that fulfills the same degree requirements. Even PLA courses like the one mentioned at Southern Utah University are fast paced and significantly cheaper than the school’s other courses. After all, if you already know the material and have the skills, you shouldn’t have to start from scratch!

We at Abound know that most people can’t put their lives on hold to go back to school. We want you to earn your degree affordably and efficiently so that you can launch yourself into the workforce with an extra leg up among the competition. If you’re ready to turn the skills you already have into credit toward your bachelor’s degree, take a look at the schools we trust to find a program that will help you succeed.

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