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CAEL Pathways Blog

Expanding Opportunities for CPL: Credit for Majors and Graduate Level Programs

Valuing and leveraging credit for prior learning (CPL), or prior learning assessment (PLA),  is nothing new in higher education. 

Since the late '70s NLU has been providing CPL options for adult learners. As a community that supports credit for prior learning options, we strive to meet the needs of our students to ensure that their experiential knowledge is recognized and validated. But the ability for students to use CPL credit was limited to elective and general education credits. As demand increased for major course credit recognition, we sought to create new programs to fulfill this need. In 2015, our goal was realized and approved at NLU for programs to incorporate CPL into their curriculum - in other words, CPL could now be used by students to fulfill their major requirements as well as for graduate level programs. 

Following the formal approval, the real work began to ensure equitable and consistent processes across the institution. The PLA office developed two new CPL options for assessing equivalent program course learning outcomes. Through our efforts, students now have the means to acquire major course credit and graduate level course credit through the acknowledgment and recognition of the learning that comes from their professional and work-related experiences. 

These two CPL options include: 

Credit by Portfolio for Major Courses

  • Students demonstrate course-equivalent knowledge through faculty-approved assignments and the submission of pre-determined documentation/validation. 

Faculty content experts assess the portfolios for a potential credit award. 

Credit by Credentials for Major Courses

  • Faculty review industry-related credentials to determine if knowledge obtained is equivalent to course content learning outcomes. If approved to be course-equivalent, students are eligible to submit their approved credentials for course credit. 

Developing these options was the easy part. Securing programs to invest the energy to provide and implement CPL options for specific major courses was by far significantly more time-consuming than we had envisioned. Persistence paid off, and by the end of 2020, we experienced an increase in the number of both graduate and doctoral programs using CPL to provide students the means to acquire credit for their significant work-related knowledge.  

The following programs have incorporated CPL into their offerings: 

CPL by Credentials

  • M.S. Human Resources Management and Development 
  • M.S. Industrial and Organizational Psychology
  • M.H.A Health Services Administration
  • M.S. Organizational Leadership/Military Leadership
  • M.Ed. and Ed.S., Educational Leadership

 CPL by Portfolio

  • B.S. Management
  • B.A. Criminal Justice
  • B.A. Hospitality Management (developed by Kendall College prior to its merger with NLU)
  • M.P.A Public Administration
  • Educational Leadership, Ed.D.
  • Higher Education Leadership, Ed.D.
  • Teaching and Learning, Ed.D., Postsecondary Teaching and Instructional Leadership
  • Endorsement only, Special Education


Through these efforts, the hope is to reduce barriers, provide affordability, and provide students with the acknowledgment that their learning counts. However, along with success came challenges. One such challenge has been student participation. There are many reasons why CPL may not be top of mind for students, including: 

  • Adult learners find themselves seeped in work, family, and other commitments, and CPL information may be set aside with the intent to reconsider at some point.  
  • Enrollment and academic advising personnel provide current and incoming students with a great deal of information (including CPL).  Still, sometimes the CPL message gets lost amidst all of the other important program and institutional requirements. 
  • Outreach efforts may not always be consistent or provide a message of relevancy, in which case students may disregard altogether. 
  • Staffing changes can sometimes inhibit faculty/staff awareness of CPL opportunities. 

Tackling the challenges

As an institution, we are mindful that our adult learners have diverse backgrounds and needs.  This awareness has been the impetus to provide an array of CPL options for major credit and graduate level credit.  With opportunities in place, our next challenge involves reinforcing our messaging to enhance awareness and increase usage.  New and future outreach efforts will include: 

  • Going where the students are - Social media outreach efforts have been increased to showcase CPL opportunities monthly.
  • Student inventory - A student survey conducted annually will be a means to create awareness, while providing a way for one-on-one outreach for students wishing to learn more about potential CPL options. 
  • Open informational Zoom meetings - Optional CPL zoom meetings will be available beginning fall 2021 for students wishing to learn more about available CPL options. 
  • Leveraging the PLA message - We have increased informational meetings with key players (programs/departments) to strengthen awareness of CPL across the institution.  Meetings include large groups and one-on-one with new staff and faculty members. 

Looking ahead

Since 1978, we have witnessed firsthand how CPL programs (undergraduate/non-major) have benefitted thousands of adult learners.  With this knowledge, the hope is to provide similar benefits for students through our newly developed major CPL programs.  Our future success will depend on time, and continued institutional support. 

More to come at the 2021 CAEL conference.

This November 17-19, CAEL will be hosting its annual conference in San Diego, CA. The conference has been designed as a hybrid experience, accommodating both in-person and virtual participation.  

To learn more about NLU's efforts to provide CPL options for major course credit, please look for our virtual session at the conference titled: Advancing Major Course PLA Options: Successes, Challenges, and Future Considerations.  

Tracy A. Costello, 'M.S.Ed., is assistant director, prior learning for National Louis University

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