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CAEL Pathways Blog

To PLA, or Not To PLA: That is the Transfer Question

By Rose Rojas, M.Ed.

Rose Rojas, district director of curriculum and transfer for CAEL institutional member Maricopa Community Colleges, is a CPL/PLA champion and active CAEL member, participating in the Credit Mobility Community of Practice. Below, she demonstrates the impact of “Encouraging seamless attainment of postsecondary credit and/or credentials for experiential learning, including apprenticeship, on-the-job training, military experience, immigrant experience and education, etc. and facilitating standardization of those credits across postsecondary institutions,” a policy that appears under CAEL’s Support the Adult Learner priority in CAEL’s recently updated policy priorities

In today's rapidly evolving job market, traditional educational pathways are no longer sufficient to meet the diverse needs of our workforce. The landscape of education must expand to recognize and validate Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) or Credit for Prior Learning (CPL), including apprenticeships, on-the-job training, military training and service, third party content providers, and professional certifications. This shift not only honors the varied paths individuals take to gain knowledge and skills but also ensures a more inclusive and dynamic approach to higher education. To achieve this, we must champion the seamless attainment and standardization of postsecondary credits for prior learning across institutions.

The Value of Prior Learning and Transfer

Prior learning encompasses a broad spectrum of activities where individuals acquire valuable skills and knowledge outside traditional academic settings. Apprenticeships and on-the-job training, for example, provide practical, hands-on experience that is often more directly applicable to real-world scenarios than classroom instruction. Military service instills discipline, leadership, and technical skills, while employer certifications and industry-recognized credentials bridge the gap between education and employment. By recognizing these forms of learning as legitimate and valuable, we can tap into a vast reservoir of talent and experience, making higher education more accessible and relevant to a broader population. 

Transfer students are particularly poised to benefit from PLA as they move from one institution to another for a variety of reasons, accruing credits in segments and aiming to complete a credential. While many students move from two-year institutions to four-year institutions as they progress toward a bachelor’s degree, others move in different directions, such as from one two-year institution to another, or from four-year institutions to two-year institutions through reverse transfer arrangements. Thus, the reason why PLA needs to be integrated into the transfer agenda.

One barrier in having a conversation related to transfer and PLA credit is the traditional use of the term “transfer.” The historic definition of transfer impedes student access by focusing solely on Carnegie units and academic credits instead of holistically meeting learners where they are in their educational journey. Additionally, many conventional views see transfer as merely the physical process of moving from one institution to another. This antiquated terminology and view excludes a significant population of individuals who could benefit from a postsecondary credential. Moving forward, let's rebrand transfer and the bureaucratic process behind the scenes as "learning recognition and credit mobility,” encompassing all prospective learners regardless of the origin of their learning. By broadening our perspective, institutions can create diverse and dynamic pathways that leverage students' prior knowledge and learning experiences outside of the classroom, seamlessly integrating them into their intended destinations.

The Case for Standardization

Despite the clear benefits of prior learning, the current system for recognizing such learning for postsecondary credit is fragmented and inconsistent. Different institutions have varying policies on credit recognition, creating confusion and barriers for students. This lack of standardization undermines the potential of PLA and creates inequities in educational attainment.

Standardizing the recognition of PLA across postsecondary institutions is essential. A unified framework would provide clarity and consistency, ensuring that all learners receive fair and equal treatment. This would enable smoother transitions between educational institutions and the workforce and vice versa, promoting lifelong learning and career development.

I acknowledge that many institutions are averse to the term “standardization” due to concerns about institutional autonomy and authority. Therefore, let's frame the conversation using the term “Articulation 2.0.” While it is standard practice for coursework on a college transcript to be evaluated when students transfer from one institution to another, the assessment of other types of learning is less prevalent. PLA addresses common needs of transfer students, especially returning adults, who, with transfer credit awarded through PLA, may be able to build on their previous learning to complete credentials faster and at a lower cost.

A strong commitment to transfer articulation and matriculation embraces the principle that learners should not be required to repeat competencies already achieved. Additionally, seamless transfer is supported by a thorough and professional evaluation of learning, regardless of the modalities used by the source institution to deliver the course material. The focus should be on the “what” and not the “who” or “where”. The same principles apply to PLA.

Key Actions to Facilitate Seamless Attainment and Standardization of Postsecondary Credits for PLA

  1. Collaborate with Partners: Engage in proactive collaboration between your transfer partners, employers, and professional organizations to ensure that PLA credits are aligned with industry standards and academic requirements. This collaboration also helps standardize the evaluation of PLA, ensuring fairness and consistency, and ultimately increases access to higher education for a broader range of students. By working together, institutions and partners can share best practices, improve the accuracy of credit evaluations, and create a more student-centered approach that acknowledges the varied backgrounds and experiences of all learners.
  2. Align Policies and Procedures: Work with your transfer partners to develop comprehensive policies, guidelines and streamline business processes for evaluating prior learning. These artifacts should be transparent, accessible, and applicable across all institutions. The Maricopa Community College District Office, under my leadership, has incorporated PLA as part of its mandatory criteria for entering into a partnership agreement. This criterion helps Maricopa identify universities aligned with its strategic priorities, enhancing transparency and efficiency while reducing credit loss. Additionally, it improves the accuracy of credit evaluations, leading to quicker admissions decisions and better resource allocation. For students, streamlined processes offer clarity and predictability, boosting satisfaction and retention rates as they perceive their efforts as valued and their educational paths as more flexible.
  3. Standardize and Triangulate PLA Decisions: Standardizing prior learning decisions with transfer partners is crucial for ensuring fairness, transparency, and efficiency in educational pathways. In the state of Arizona, the public institutions, through the statewide articulation task forces, standardize decisions and equivalencies related to national exams (AP, CLEP, Cambridge, IB, DSST). This standardization helps streamline the credit mobility process, reducing confusion and potential delays for students transitioning between institutions. Moreover, it promotes equity by ensuring that all students, regardless of their background or previous educational experiences, are evaluated fairly and given appropriate credit for their prior learning. Ultimately, standardized PLA decisions empower students to make informed decisions about their academic journey. I have been advocating for years that we should expand these statewide efforts to include other PLA methods. If your institution participates in a statewide transfer system, PLA should be embedded within it.


The recognition and standardization of PLA is pivotal in creating an equitable and dynamic education system. By valuing diverse learning experiences and ensuring their seamless integration into postsecondary pathways, we can empower individuals to achieve their educational and career goals. This, in turn, could be the key to achieving higher attainment goals and greater learner satisfaction.

As transfer advocates and colleagues, we should openly discuss matters affecting transfer, focusing on collaboration to facilitate academic, credit, and learner mobility. This collaborative advocacy for transferring PLA credit can significantly contribute to broader efforts supporting credential and degree completion. PLA is no longer a new concept, and the time has come to make its promise a reality. Access to postsecondary credentials should be available to all, regardless of where individuals begin their path toward completion or how they attained college-level learning along the way.


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