December 06, 2011 Becky Klein-Collins
CAEL is often asked, “How many US postsecondary institutions offer PLA? And in particular, how many offer portfolio assessments?”
Although we have surveyed PLA-offering institutions in the past on what kinds of evaluation methods they offer (as well as other institutional policies and practices), we have not done a formal study of what percentage of all institutions offer PLA services.
IPEDS (the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) does track two measures related to PLA. One measure tracks whether Institutions award credit for Advanced Placement (AP), and the second tracks whether they award “credit for life experience.” While we would certainly wish to change the name of that variable to reflect that credit should only be awarded for the learning that comes from life experience, the full IPEDS definition of the variable does make that distinction:
Credit earned by students for what they have learned through independent study, noncredit adult courses, work experience, portfolio demonstration, previous licensure or certification, or completion of other learning opportunities (military, government, or professional). Credit may also be awarded through a credit by examination program.
A quick analysis of IPEDS data shows that only 1,483 institutions indicated that they awarded “credit for life experience” in 2004-2005 (the first year that data is available); that has grown to 2,007 institutions in 2010-2011. Those numbers represent a 35% increase in the total number of institutions saying that they offer PLA. In addition, the percentage of institutions indicating that they offer PLA rose over that time period from 21.4% to 26.8%.
Given the wide variety of institutional policies and practices regarding PLA, it’s important to view the above numbers with some caution. For example, there are some schools that award credit for AP or challenge exams but nothing else – and that is quite a different approach from schools that also use ACE guide recommendations and portfolio evaluation to award credit for prior learning. Also, when one of these PLA methods is available at a school, it may not be offered throughout the institution but rather in certain departments only, or it may only be used by one or two students per year. So institutions indicating that they offer “credit for life experience” may actually only have a very limited PLA program.
Nevertheless, seeing a trend of growth in this one variable is encouraging and may suggest that more institutions are beginning to recognize learning regardless of where it takes place.
We would love to hear if you are aware of other studies looking at the extent to which PLA is available across institutions – and if you are seeing a growth in PLA offerings in your region or state.