Learning Outside the Classroom Counts

Reinvigorating Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is emerging as a priority across the US; although, it remains an underutilized strategy for accelerating college completion and the attainment of industry-recognized credentials by adults deemed low-skilled by academic assessments. The aim of this article is to introduce PLA as a way to strengthen the bridge to college for adults enrolled in career pathways and Adult Basic Education transition programs. A second article will be published this summer (2015) to discuss the impact of PLA for these adult learners based on the National College Transition Network’s (NCTN) recent work to strengthen, expand, and promote PLA as an effective acceleration and retention strategy.

The term prior learning is used to describe the knowledge and skills one acquires while living one’s life: working, participating in employer training programs, serving in the military, studying independently, and volunteering or doing community service. PLA measures the college-level learning one has acquired outside of a college setting. This learning may be assessed and credit awarded through a PLA process established by a college to validate the college-level skills many adults possess.

PLA research shows that this strategy can lead to improved retention and completion rates. Students also learn the value of their experience, which gives them confidence to complete their degrees. By validating the knowledge and skills one has already acquired, the PLA process can also have a motivating effect for some students. When students earn their credentials faster, they save time and money. A Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) study of 48 postsecondary institutions, Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success, found that 56% of the students who earned some credit through prior learning completed a degree within seven years, compared to only 21% of students who received no credit for prior learning. Latino students are 7 ½ times more likely to persist if they receive some credit via PLA. PLA is an effective tool for helping veterans to translate military training to civilian credentials

Further, PLA is encouraged in workforce training programs. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Training and Employment Guidance Letter 15-10 (December 15, 2010) lists PLA as a strategy “to help adults and dislocated workers obtain academic credit for independently attained knowledge and skills, thereby accelerating the process of credential attainment.”

The use of PLA does not obviate the need to strengthen adults’ academic skills; it validates the college-level skills and knowledge many adults possess. Credit earned for prior learning can help recover lost time for those whose path to college credit is delayed by placement into developmental education. Gaining credit through PLA has also been shown to boost the confidence of returning adults and contribute to their success in degree attainment.

The onus of implementation lies on colleges, however, adult college transition programs need to be informed about PLA to raise adult learners’ awareness that prior learning, training, and military experience matter and may translate into college-level credit. Advisors need know how to identify potentially eligible adults to assist them to pursue PLA as part of the college enrollment process. Instructors need to engage adults in examining their prior learning through reflection, readings, writing, and discussions. There are, or course, challenges for adult learners. These challenges are consistent with the types of college and career readiness skills that these education providers work to address in their program curricula.


NCTN partnered with the Council for Adult Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the National Council for Workforce Education (NCWE) with funding from SkillWorks to produce Environmental Scan of Prior Learning Assessment Policies and Practices. This report provides recommendations on how PLA policies and practices might be strengthened, expanded, and promoted as an effective acceleration strategy in creating bridges to college completion and job attainment for low-skilled adults in the Metro Boston area. You can read the report here.

Published by

Ellen Hewett

Ellen Hewett

Ellen Hewett is Senior Technical Advisor of the National College Transition Network (NCTN) at World Education, Inc. She served as the Director of the NCTN from 2008 until July 1, 2018. As Director she provided vision and oversight to the NCTN team, and assisted state, regional, and municipal agencies, employers, and educational institutions in building the systemic collaboration needed to design and implement college and career readiness programming. In her new role, Ellen continues to provide system-wide professional development activities and consultation aimed at ensuring adult learners’ success.