An effective Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) strategy can enhance graduation rates. When a student earns college credit for what he or she already knows, it can motivate students of all ethnic groups to persist in their educations. PLA can validate life experiences, improve confidence in one’s academic abilities, and save both money and time.
Certain segments, such as Latinos, blacks, and low-income students, are more likely to be first-generation students, and Latinos are also more likely to be over the age of 25 at enrollment. However, more than ethnicity, race, gender or age, an institution's PLA policies have more of an effect on whether students take advantage of it.
A 2014 study by CAEL and Excelencia in Education revealed several interesting insights:
1. Non-Latino students used PLA more frequently overall than Latinos —42 percent vs. 15 percent — but the gap disappeared at schools with robust PLA program
2. At institutions that gave less emphasis to PLA, participation rates for non-Latinos and Latinos were equivalent
3. PLA options that were visible and easy to use were the primary factor
4. Latinos were more than five times as likely to earn PLA credit for a foreign language than non-Latinos, and approximately half of the Latino students earning credit for a foreign language also earned additional PLA credits in other subjects
Because participation relies heavily on the institution's approach to PLA, the burden of developing an effective way to market, manage, and measure PLA rests on each institution. Unfortunately, the study found that strategies often fail to reach the audience, or communicate the wrong message:
• 48 percent of the students interviewed reported that they learned about PLA through word-of-mouth
• 30 percent were told about PLA by an academic adviser
• 22 percent found information about PLA on the school's website
The methods used by the institutions to communicate information about PLA reveals a discrepancy between the message the schools believe they are communicating and the message students are actually receiving. Of the 10 institutions studied, all stated that they inform students about PLA options through academic advisers and their website. In addition:
• Nine include information about PLA in their printed catalogs
• Eight communicate PLA information through their admissions counselors
• Five have a PLA brochure
• Five actively advertise
• Two include information about PLA in a student handbook
The positioning and messaging can also have an effect on whether students embrace PLA. First-generation, Latinos, low-income, or older students may have little confidence in their academic abilities. Messages couched in terms urging them to "prove what they know" can be intimidating, with some students perceiving the message to be that they need to prove that they belong in college.
Postsecondary institutions must create effective strategies if they want to increase participation in PLA among all student groups. The study suggests a number of strategies that institutions can implement to achieve this goal:
1. Make information about PLA easily accessible and readily available. For example, consolidating all information on the topic on the school's website or preparing a brochure to be given to prospective students could be usefuInform students about PLA early, including at orientation, open houses, and admissions counseling.
2. Include PLA in advertising materials, especially ads targeting adult students, with an emphasis on the value that the institution places on what prospective students have already learned.
3. Reach out specifically to foreign-language speakers — including but not limited to Latinos — can be an effective way to introduce them to PLA.
4. Offer a course for adult students that explores all of the different PLA options can improve participation rates. Such courses can serve to eliminate confusion, and also provide students with the opportunity to reflect on all that they have learned and identify areas that need improvement.
5. Establish a system to track PLA usage at the school. Identifying specific groups that are not participating can help schools determine how their messages are failing to reach their target, and make adjustments.
PLA can play a vital part in improving student retention and graduation rates. However, students cannot embrace a program unless they are aware that it exists, and they will be unlikely to pursue a program that they cannot understand. Therefore, it is up to each institution to develop a robust PLA program and promote it effectively.
Studies have shown that students who earn PLA credit are 2.5 times as likely to complete their degrees. The greatest challenge facing postsecondary institutions, however, is finding an effective strategy to promote PLA and encourage participation among all student groups.