The ‘Prior Learning’ Edge

With the number of high school-aged Americans beginning to ebb, President Obama’s goal of dramatically increasing the number of U.S. citizens with postsecondary credentials is going to be impossible to achieve without significantly more adults returning to and graduating from college.

With that in mind, policy makers are scanning the educational landscape looking for techniques and tactics that might help draw adults into college and help them move through — and a new study suggests that one such tool holds promise.

An examination of the educational records of more than 62,000 adult undergraduates at 48 colleges finds that students who had sought and been awarded academic credit by their institutions for "prior learning" earned in the military, corporate training and other non-classroom settings were more than twice as likely to graduate, and to persist even if they did not graduate, than were their peers who had not earned such credit.

In total, 56 percent of the students who entered the 48 institutions in 2001-2 and earned some "prior learning assessment" credit by 2008 went on to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in those seven years, compared to 21 percent of students who did not receive any PLA credit, according to the study, "Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: A 48-Institution Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes."

"That’s a sit-up-and-take-notice finding,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education, which financed the study by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. “CAEL’s research confirms that prior-learning assessment can help adults move faster toward their associate’s and baccalaureate degrees. We need to see more institutions offering this option and more adults participating in it.”

The concept of "prior learning assessment" is decades old, and it has grown to include multiple types of mechanisms for measuring knowledge and skills that students have accumulated through various types of formal and less formal formats, such corporate training, work experience, and independent study. The most common types of assessments include standardized exams developed by the College Board (the College Level Examination Program exams and Advanced Placement exams), the American Council of Education’s guides for recognizing credit for instructional programs offered in the military and by employers, and institutional reviews of individualized student portfolios.

More than half of all colleges award some kind of credit for prior learning, says Pamela Tate, CAEL’s president and CEO, but vastly fewer offer it to significant numbers of students or conduct numerous types of evaluations (many recognize ACE military credits, for instance, but nothing else).

There are multiple reasons for that. Some kinds of evaluation are expensive to conduct (faculty members must be trained to review and assess portfolios, etc.). Faculty members at some institutions remain skeptical about the concept of rewarding credit for learning gained outside the classroom. And public institutions that are funded in large part by state formulas that reward them based on the number of students they enroll and the number of classroom hours those students take often do not see it as in their interests to award credit for learning gained elsewhere.

But with politicians and policy makers coalescing around the need to get more Americans into and through some kind of postsecondary training, credit awarded through prior learning assessments offers an opportunity to entice adults back to college with the prospect that they can build on learning they’ve already gained and reduce both the time and money they might have to expend to earn a credential.

CAEL and Lumina undertook the study, Tate said, to try to collect wide-scale data that might "prove what we already believed to be true — that students [with prior learning credit] are more likely to graduate and persist." The study examined data from a broad range of institutions that (through membership in CAEL) award credit through at least one kind of prior learning assessment; the 48 colleges included 22 public four-year and two-year colleges (large ones such as Pennsylvania State University and Miami Dade College and smaller ones such as Northern Kentucky University), 24 private nonprofit colleges (such as DePaul, New York and Webster Universities), and two for-profit institutions, Capella University and the University of Phoenix.

Of the 62,475 students age 25 or older who entered the 48 institutions in 2001-2, 15,594 earned some "prior learning assessment" credit by 2008. (Standardized exams were the most common type of prior learning methods offered by the participating colleges, followed by portfolio assessments and ACE-evaluated military and corporate training programs. Virtually all institutions limit the amount of credit they accept toward degrees and some limit the awarding of such credit to certain departments or programs.)

The PLA students in the study were less likely than their peers to be women (52 vs. 59 percent), less likely to receive need-based aid, less likely to need remedial work, and more likely to have military experience. They were also slightly older than their peers.

Students with prior learning credits also performed better, across virtually all types of institutions and all demographics.

Among other findings in the study:

  • Students who received prior learning credit earned their degrees more quickly than did their peers, saving on average between 2.5 and 10.1 months for bachelor’s degrees and up to 4.5 months for associate degrees, depending on the amount of prior learning credit they had been awarded.
  • The differences in the graduation rates for PLA and non-PLA students varied based on the policies of their institutions regarding prior learning credit. The gaps were largest at institutions with more permissive policies. At colleges where prior learning credits can be used to gain advanced standing, for instance, students with such credit were four times likelier to graduate than were their peers (56 percent to 13 percent), while the gap was 48 to 35 percent. 
  • Even when students did not graduate, accumulation of prior learning credit appeared to help students stay in colleges. Fifty-six percent of the PLA students who entered college in 2001-2 but had not earned a degree by 2008 had accumulated 80 percent of the credits they needed for a degree; the comparable figure for non-PLA students was 22 percent.

While the study suggests that students who are awarded prior learning assessment credit progress through college and toward a degree more than their peers, its authors make clear that they are not close to showing a causal relationship, and that they are left with many questions.

"Do PLA students have higher graduation rates because PLA enhances the self-esteem and motivation of students by showing them that they have already mastered college-level learning? Is it also because PLA students already possess characteristics that are associated with better academic outcomes? What institutional policies are influencing whether and how students are using (or not using) PLA, and whether or not this helps them achieve a shorter time to degree?"

Those questions aside, CAEL’s Tate hopes that the data will prompt more adult learners to seek credit for prior learning and more colleges to consider awarding such credit. The council is developing a plan, she said, to create a centralized system through which students could present the various documents (standardized test reports, corporate training results, etc.) to be reviewed and a national group of experts would assess them, with the goal of building an infrastructure for prior learning for individual institutions that cannot afford to do their own reviews.

"Our hope is to start a national center that will scale up the number of students getting credit," Tate said.

More fully tapping into the learning that American adults have derived outside the classroom could provide a wise and cost efficient way to speed progress toward the Obama administration’s completion goals, said Peter Smith, senior vice president for academic strategies and development at Kaplan Higher Education and author of a new book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (Wiley). "In a work force where there are roughly 60 million men and women with a high school diploma and, in many cases, some college, assessing this learning would recognize their unrecognized knowledge and tap their untapped potential both for college and for work advancement. And for people who value testing over deeper assessment, this data suggests the value of prolonged and interactive thought about what one has learned as a part of the learning experience.”


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