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CAEL Pathways Blog

Inroads Into Inclusivity: Inaugural CPL Equity Award Winners Share Insights

Earlier this month, CAEL, in partnership with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), announced the winners of the inaugural CPL Equity awards. The awards recognized seven colleges and universities for their pioneering work to close equity gaps in CPL access. 

The awards build on CAEL and WICHE's previous research around the impact of CPL. In 2020, the organizations published The PLA Boost, a 72-institution study that showed adult learners who utilize CPL were more likely to save time and money in earning their credentials, and they were overall 17% more likely to graduate. While the magnitude of that completion boost varies across diverse populations, CPL’s positive influence on college completion persists across all races and ethnicities, by gender, by all income levels, and across all institutional settings.

The research also exposed an ironic contrast between CPL’s demonstrated ability to impart inclusive impact and its limited use among adult learners. Overall, only about one in 10 adult learners participates in a CPL program. Black students, low-income students, and students in community college settings are even less likely to use CPL. To explore this incongruity, CAEL and WICHE completed a follow-on study that focused on disparities in CPL usage. It identified factors that included the cost of accessing CPL, awareness of CPL, institutional policies and practices around CPL, and confidence among adult learners in the validity of their prior learning experiences. 

Purpose of the CPL Equity Awards
To maintain the focus on the underuse of CPL, particularly among underserved student populations, CAEL and WICHE co-created the CPL Equity awards, which highlight successes in these areas, offering national recognition and the opportunity to elevate strategies that other institutions can employ to close equity gaps that are creating barriers to CPL for their own current and prospective students.

The Winners and Their Approaches
A focus on career pathways, a holistic approach to engagement when implementing or optimizing CPL programs, leveraging data systems to track progress, and using CPL creatively were among the common themes evident in the CPL strategies the award winners employed to realize successful outcomes. The top three winners in 2024 are Miami Dade College, Lehman College (CUNY), and West Los Angeles College. Four additional colleges received honorable mentions: Salt Lake Community College, Capella University, Metro State University (Minn.), and CUNY School of Professional Studies. Metro State’s approach was noteworthy in its focus on immigrants and refugees, in partnership with community organizations, while CUNY SPS creatively employed CPL strategies to implement an alternative admissions process. 

Miami Dade College: CPL Equity Champion
Miami Dade College, which was recognized with the CPL Equity Champion award, collaborated with workforce development partners and made upskilling a priority to help close CPL equity gaps. It also used CPL to promote credit articulations for state-recognized industry certifications.

“We really wanted to engage industry, we really wanted to make sure that our partners across the community were aware of some of the opportunities through prior learning assessment that are completely outside of AP, IB, and just submitting a joint services transcript in class,” said Dr. Philip Giarraffa, executive director of articulation and academic pathways for the college. The college has incorporated portfolios, industry certifications, professional licenses, and challenge exams into its CPL program. “At the very moment, we have committees across the college working on portfolios for trade and transportation, working on portfolios for law enforcement, developing new challenge exams for architecture. We have charged committees to really help recruit very specific populations.”

The college’s efforts to expand CPL resulted in significantly increased student participation in CPL. Over a two-year period, Miami Dade College saw a 366% increase in credits awarded via CPL. During the growth trend, the college maintained proportional representation of Black and Latino/a students.

Lehman College: A CPL Equity Rising Star
Dr. Richard Finger is vice president of enrollment management at Lehman College of the City University of New York in the Bronx, a CPL Equity Rising Star award winner. He said CPL, once known on campus as “the little engine that could,” is “not so little anymore.” Noting that the college lies within the nation's poorest Congressional district, he said the college’s ability to broaden its engagement around CPL began with more relatable phrasing. “On campus, we call it alternative credit options. And that just seems to sit better with our faculty, it sits better with our students, it sits better with everybody.”

“Our approach to our work over the last few years has been reimagining credit for prior learning as a nontraditional student success strategy,” he added. Rather than viewing CPL as a recruitment tool, he said, the college is leveraging it as a strategy to support student success continually, from pre-admission through graduation.

CPL has helped Lehman College students facing financial challenges stay on track for completion. “We work with students to leverage CPL opportunities who have exhausted their aid and are facing having to stop out and not complete their degree because they're not getting aid,” said Finger. He said students use CPL to fulfill credit requirements as well as maintain eligibility for assistance programs. And for students who do end up having to pause their enrollment, the college remains engaged with them to ensure they're engaged in credit-bearing activities that support a return to college.

Since the fall of 2020, more than 3,000 students received CPL credit at Lehman College, resulting in a total of more than 16,000 credits awarded. Among students receiving CPL, 57% used it to complete their degrees, and 93% were students of color, including Native American, Asian, Black, or  Latino/a students.

West Los Angeles College: A CPL Equity Rising Star
At West Los Angeles College, another CPL Equity Rising Star, CPL use was limited prior to 2021. Dr. Allison Tom-Miura, the college’s dean of academic affairs, said that engaging faculty early on was critical to the college’s recent upsurge in CPL. “We needed to get their support, because we couldn't do anything without some of the curriculum changes to CPL.”

The college also joined a statewide pilot program, focusing on industry certifications and partnerships. Working with faculty, it integrated CPL within its four-year dental hygiene program, which Tom-Miura said was among the first community college bachelor’s degrees offered in California. The college mirrored this approach with dental assisting and allied health. It is also partnering with the Los Angeles County assessor’s office, incorporating real estate certifications to address workforce needs arising from a wave of retirements. 

From October 2021 to June 2023, 275 students earned CPL in seven disciplines, totaling 2,876 units - a seven-fold increase over the previous three-year period. Amid this rapid expansion, the gender equity gap narrowed and the number of Latino/a CPL students increased dramatically.

A report detailing the progress of each CPL Equity Award winner is available at cael.org

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