Bringing Prior Learning Assessment into Higher Education’s Mainstream
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Bringing Prior Learning Assessment into Higher Education’s Mainstream

Creating a clear policy about prior learning acceptance, and communicating that policy to every end of a given institution, is critical for the wider acceptance of non-traditional students into higher education.

—Co-written with Teresa Clark | Director of New Program Research and Design, Lipscomb University

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is increasingly acknowledged to be an important component of degree completion, particularly for adult students. With the rise in availability of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other ways students can learn outside of a traditional classroom, it is even more important for institutions to find ways to encourage those students with the initiative and maturity to learn independently. However, institutional acceptance of PLA is still generally low.

In this article, we talk about our two institutions and how they use PLA, and then propose ways other institutions might help adult students in this area.

Lipscomb University

Lipscomb University has granted credit for the more traditional forms of PLA for years, and all undergraduate students, including both traditional (18 to 22-year-olds) and non-traditional (members of the Adult Degree Program, average age of 32) are welcome to make use of these forms of PLA for up to 25 percent of their degree program, or 30 credits of the 126 required to graduate.

Lipscomb also offers a portfolio evaluation process; however, this method is open only to members of the Adult Degree Program or daytime undergraduate students with at least three years of military experience. The rationale was that work experience serves as a required precursor to the portfolio and 18 to 22-year-olds are unlikely to have this experience.

This fall, Lipscomb begins a competency-based program with an assessment center and the awarding of digital badges. The institution plans to offer a full competency-based undergraduate major (pending accreditor’s approval) through the College of Professional Studies, which houses the Adult Degree Program, and only to students within that program.

The College of Professional Studies also plans to offer competency assessment to a small group of first-time freshmen and engage in a study with one group receiving only initial assessment as freshmen and post-assessment as seniors, but the other receiving competency development with a faculty coach between assessments. Competency development may not only benefit non-traditional students for prior learning and employment, but also traditional students for college success and retention. The results of this study may lead to some competency assessment of traditional students.

Excelsior College

Like Lipscomb, Excelsior College offers a variety of PLA options. Excelsior was founded as a “credit aggregator” with a particular focus on degree completion for adult students. As such, it has always actively sought ways to award credit for college-level learning through exams, portfolios, evaluation of military and corporate training and transfer credits. The challenge is to create coherent degree programs flexible enough to allow credit from multiple sources, and still ensure the relevant content is covered.

This is where a competency-based outlook comes in. Excelsior uses the currency of the credit hour, in part because it is necessary to do so in order to transfer in much of the credit from other sources. But it thinks in terms of learning outcomes, so its degree programs, courses and exams list areas of knowledge that must be addressed. As faculty evaluate potential credit from other sources, they look at the outcomes matched by the source.

Looking at the Rest of the Industry

One area many colleges and universities cite as a reason for not awarding credit for prior learning is the idea of preserving their brand and identity. Most institutions limit the amount of credit that can be obtained via PLA to a fairly low percentage (Lipscomb’s 25 percent is relatively generous), in part because the meaning of a degree from the institution is tied up in their standards for, or methods of, instruction. At Excelsior, the meaning of the degree is captured by the learning outcomes and the demonstration of knowledge via capstone projects and exams, and the means by which the knowledge was acquired is of much less importance.

How can we encourage other institutions to be more welcoming to adult students who bring substantial knowledge they can apply to their programs? Assessment is at the heart of the solution. An institution whose identity is tied to its teaching methods could insist on in-depth portfolio work that mimics the way assessment is done internally. Or it could define learning outcomes and then use assessments, either its own or those available from independent providers, to test for those outcomes.

Whatever an institution decides about its use of PLA, having a clear policy communicated throughout the institution is important. The policy needs to be coherent and well reasoned. And it needs to be communicated not just to faculty, but to potential students. People going to an institution’s website to find information should be able to tell easily whether the learning they have will be worth any credits at that institution; since PLA acceptance might result in a difference of a year’s tuition or more, it could be a major factor in a person’s choice of institution. Whether traditional or non-traditional, students should be encouraged to be proud of what they know.

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3 Responses to Bringing Prior Learning Assessment into Higher Education’s Mainstream

  1. WA Anderson Reply

    2013/07/02 at 7:28 am

    This article draws out some good lessons from the two examples for other institutions to consider. Basing assessments on learning outcomes or competency is one way to ensure students are able to perform as they say they are and, thus, protecting the credit-granting institution’s brand.

  2. Lisa C Reply

    2013/07/02 at 11:13 am

    I think institutions are unaware of the true impact of PLA eligibility on prospective students’ decision to enroll at a particular institution. For many adult students, it could be the deciding factor. PLA can allow them to save considerable time and money in pursuing higher education. I recently read an article written by an adult student who described his process of narrowing down his postsecondary choices. At the end of the day, he chose the institution that allowed PLA credits because he would save more than a year and almost $5,000!

  3. Jessica Prince Reply

    2013/07/03 at 9:57 am

    Institutions that are willing to explore new methods of assessment and credentialing will be a step ahead as competition heats up in the higher education sector. Online education and all of its elements (MOOCs, etc.) aren’t going away anytime soon. So, instead of competing with them (and almost always losing based on cost), institutions should shift their focus to credentialing, where there isn’t as much competition — yet — among higher education providers.

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