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CAEL Pathways Blog

We Wanted To Increase Use of PLA/CPL, So We Stopped Charging for It

Close your eyes and picture the average college student, experiencing new independence and soaking up campus life. News flash: today's college often is not that 18-22-year-old so many imagine. In fact, more than a third of college students today are adult learners, students who are often juggling work and family obligations and come to postsecondary learning with considerable work and life experiences.

The recent report from the Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board tells us more about the needs of postsecondary students more generally. They are increasingly mobile, accumulating credits at multiple institutions. In addition, they are learning outside the classroom, experiences that can also be recognized for college credit through prior learning assessment (PLA), also known as credit for prior learning (CPL).

How well are we supporting the needs of students accumulating this type of credit outside the classroom? The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) partnered on a 2020 report, The PLA Boost, which found  that students who earn credit through PLA/CPL show greater credential completion, saving time and money, while also completing an average of 17.6 more credits at the institution. Despite the positive outcomes, only 11% of adult students in the study earned credit through PLA/CPL. Black students and lower income students have even lower take-up rates at 6% and 7%, respectively. 

Some barriers prevent students from taking full advantage of the opportunity to get CPL credit from these learning experiences. For example, lack of information was cited by students as the top barrier to pursuing CPL according to a 2020 report from WICHE. Thus, while students may have a wealth of experience and learning that could apply to a degree program, they lack the information needed to translate that experience into college credit. 

Another top barrier for students interested in CPL - not surprisingly - is money. Fees to have learning evaluated can be significant, particularly for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Title IV funds cannot be used to assist students with these fees, so many opt to simply take the class instead. With the equity imperative in mind, in their 2021 report, the National Task Force on the Transfer and Award of Credit recommends removing unnecessary barriers that impede award of credit. 

At University of Phoenix, we have long embraced the notion of learning occurring both inside and outside the classroom, and we have offered CPL to our students for more than 40 years. As we considered how to improve our CPL program to best support our students, we discovered that our CPL fees were a significant barrier for many interested students and kept our CPL credit-earning rates low. 

This insight led us to ponder: what if we stop charging students fees for CPL? Conventional wisdom tells us that we would lose tuition revenue while also incurring a cost associated with providing the CPL service. We analyzed this assumption and learned, aligned with The PLA Boost findings, our students who earned CPL credit complete more courses at the university than those who do not. In June 2021, we removed all fees associated with CPL. Early data have shown positive initial results with increased CPL submissions in June and July. Further analysis will be conducted, over time, to understand how this change has impacted our CPL outcomes. 

With so much focus on serving adult learners today, removing barriers must be at the top of the list of priorities for institutions. Designed around the needs of 'traditional' students, many of our practices and assumptions in higher education impede the success of adult students. Considering the impact of our policies and practices on equity further supports this imperative. Removing a fee that is nominal for an institution but significant for an individual student could be the change that allows that student to succeed. We're excited to see the impact of this change on student engagement with our CPL program, and we look forward to sharing the results with the CAEL community in the near future.

Devin Andrews is vice president, Office of Admissions and Evaluation, at the University of Phoenix.


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