Give ‘em Some Credit: Assessing Prior Learning

Colleges and universities looking to keep their enrollment numbers strong need to look for all possible students. With the number of students enrolling in US higher education institutions declining steadily since 2011 and the massive declines in enrollment during 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, colleges of all types and sizes are feeling the drop. One vital way to beef up enrollment is to seek more adult students who may have dropped out of college or gone straight into the workforce or military after high school. Offering a robust program to assess their prior learning is one of the best tactics to attract these students. 

Prior Learning Assessment and Graduation Rates 

Beyond your enrollment numbers, completion rates are another important metric for your institution. As it turns out, 47% of adult students who receive credit towards their degree through prior learning assessment (PLA) complete their degree, while only 27% of those with no PLA graduate. Using learning assessment can assist adult learners in graduating more quickly and at a lower cost. It also encourages students and makes their path to a credential easier. PLA boosts self-esteem for these learners, as reflecting on their experience and prior training can help them appreciate all they have accomplished and further inspire them to invest their efforts in education. 

Evaluating Transcripts 

The most obvious way for students to receive credit towards their degree is by transferring courses taught at another institution of higher education. Institutions can easily apply prior community college or university courses, but some classes are harder to transfer. A robust system to evaluate equivalences on an individual basis, if needed, can substantially help students who might otherwise slip through the cracks. 

Military training, corporate education, and vocational courses can be more difficult to transfer over. Yet the benefits of applying this learning to degree programs will make a huge difference for a wide swath of adult students who bring years of training and experience to the table. When it is impossible to transfer less traditional course credits into college programs, other methods such as exams or accelerated courses can offer alternatives. 

Exams for College Credit 

Many schools offer College-Level Examination Program® (CLEP) credit for students who can pass standardized exams. In addition, for students who excelled in high school, the Advanced Placement (AP) exams may allow them to fill some degree requirements. Another way to get credit is to offer departmental or placement exams for experienced students to test out of basic requirements and possibly use these competencies to shorten the time it takes them to complete their program. 

Work and Life Experience as College Credit 

Some programs allow students to submit portfolios demonstrating their work or life experience as learning for credit towards a degree. It is not always feasible or applicable to take an exam to prove knowledge in disparate fields of study. Hence, the portfolio option is excellent for smaller programs and majors where testing is burdensome. In addition, professional certifications or licenses can be another venue for crediting competence in certain subjects. 

What About Partial Credit? 

Every college is dealing with learning deficits and gaps in their whole student population, especially as pandemic learning was spotty for many high school students. Yet adult learners are an even more varied set of students, with possibly partial knowledge in many subject areas. For these students, it is hugely dispiriting to sit through classes where they know much of the information. Competency-based courses, which allow students to pass quickly through material they know while spending more time on new material, are one perfect solution to this problem. Offering self-paced online courses for individuals to learn what they have missed while not becoming bored and wasting time on information they know is a great option. Your institution can consider popular subjects where incoming students likely have some knowledge to create classes in this learning style even if not offered for all courses. 

Marketing Your PLA Programs 

All the credit offerings your institution provides for incoming adult students are useless if you don’t market them. Consider featuring links to your prior learning assessment and credit-for-experience programs as you segment your marketing channels. While not all students can take advantage of these programs, the percentage of our population that has something of value to speed them towards a credential is likely higher than we know. For example, one survey found that only 11% of the students had applied and received credit at institutions that offer PLA. Further, many colleges don’t offer these programs, which are crucial to attracting more returning or adult students. 

You need to include PLA programs in your marketing, especially to non-traditional students, and the more you can encourage students to apply to these programs, the higher your graduation rates will be. Giving credit where credit is due can be great for your institution and the students you serve.


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