Debunking Four Common Myths about Prior Learning Assessment
Prior learning assessment (PLA) is a perfect response to the all-too-common barriers standing in-between many would-be adult students and postsecondary degree completion: time and money. It provides students with the opportunity to earn course credit for demonstrated evidence of prior learning. It’s clear that adults, who typically have more on their plate than so-called traditional students, stand to greatly benefit from PLA. In fact, findings from the study “Is College Worth it for Me? How Adults Without Degrees Think About Going (Back) to School¹,” show that driving concerns expressed by respondents hinged on whether they could afford a postsecondary education and whether they could make it work around their busy lives.
Unfortunately, there are some misconceptions about PLA that may prevent institutions from offering it as an option to students. As the proportion of older college students continues to increase, we owe it to this significant population of students to support their degree or credential completion efforts. To start, we can increase that support by setting the record straight regarding some of the more common misconceptions about PLA.
Myth 1: PLA lacks academic rigor.
The Reality: CAEL’s Ten Standards for Assessing Learning provides a framework that ensures that assessment is measurable, trackable and accurately reflects learning gained through equivalent course work. The standards also guide the training of PLA practitioners and credentialing experts, ensuring a high level of thoroughness in the assessment process. As a longtime advocate and thought leader on PLA, CAEL has played an indelible role in PLA advancement for decades. PLA today is the fruit of decades of research and successful implementation at institutions throughout the country, proving its value as a tool to encourage degree attainment.
Myth 2: Since students who take advantage of PLA necessarily take fewer classes, PLA harms institutions’ bottom line.
The Reality: While students who take advantage of PLA may receive credit for a handful of courses, the credit they receive is typically for equivalent introductory classes. Because PLA helps students along the path of degree completion, they’re inspired to continue their education and thus take program-specific courses. This belief is backed by data from CAEL’s study Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: A 48-Institution Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes, which showed that students who took advantage of PLA showed greater persistence in completing their degree—they were 2.5 times more likely to complete their degree than students without PLA credit. They also took 9.9 more course credits (not including their PLA credits) than students who did not do PLA. Additionally, the knowledge that PLA will expedite degree completion may itself be a motivating factor for students to begin a program, making PLA a good marketing tool.
Myth 3: PLA lacks support from states.
The Reality: Each state has its own criteria for the transfer, articulation and transcription of PLA credit to guide its higher education institutions, yet support is out there. In partnership with HCM Strategists and backed by the support of Lumina Foundation, CAEL has compiled a thorough, up-to-date background of states’ specific PLA protocols and procedures, which can be reviewed here (PDF).
Myth 4: PLA is a new, untested form of learning assessment.
The Reality: PLA has existed for decades, and CAEL has been at the forefront of its implementation and development since 1974. Since that time, CAEL has worked with researchers and higher education institutions to enrich our understanding of the adult learner and of learning assessment. In 1989, CAEL published Assessing Learning: Standards, Principles, and Procedures, paving the way for the creation of CAEL’s aforementioned Ten Standards for Assessing Learning. PLA’s endurance as a learning assessment tool attests to its value for adult learners.
PLA is an effective tool for adult students and a recruitment tool for institutions as well. For more information on CAEL’s PLA services, click here. CAEL also provides PLA services for educational institutions and corporations through its LearningCounts program, available here. To review the latest research on PLA as completed by CAEL and its partners, click here.
¹Public Agenda, 2013