Get Credit for Prior Learning Experience
February 14th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
If you are in the process of choosing an online degree program, you may be interested in finding out about the option of receiving credit for your prior learning experience. Many schools offer an assessment process that allows evaluation of your prior experience and if approved, credit hours are awarded and applied towards your degree program. Learn about the specific requirements for this type of assessment process prior to starting your program because it takes time to complete and submit the required documentation.
What is prior learning experience?
Almost everyone has some type of prior experience; however, that is not always a guarantee that it will earn college-level credits. How does a school determine what you have learned and if it is relevant for credit towards the degree program you are interested in pursuing?
That’s the purpose for completing a Prior Learning Assessment, which is defined as follows by The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning:
“A term used to describe learning gained outside a traditional academic environment. Put another way, it’s learning and knowledge your students acquire while living their lives: working, participating in employer training programs, serving in the military, studying independently, volunteering or doing community service, and studying open source courseware. In short, PLA is the evaluation and assessment of an individual’s life learning for college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training.”
Documenting prior learning experience
If you decide to have your prior learning experience evaluated, what can you expect for your involvement in the documentation process? There are many options available that schools utilize for the prior learning assessment and may include:
1. College-Level Exams
College-Level Examination Program (CLEP)
There are a total of 33 subject-specific exams that can be taken as a means of documenting prior learning. You begin by finding the school you are interested in, to learn about their specific policies and procedures. If your school is listed, you’ll receive an itemization of the exams you can take, the minimum grade required to receive credit, and the potential credit hours that will be awarded. The website indicates that CLEP credits are accepted by a total of 2,900 colleges and universities.
DSST College-Level Exams
There are 38 subject-specific exams that can be taken for college credits. The website indicates that the DSST program is approved by the American Council on Education (ACE), which represents the executives of accredited colleges, both non-profit and for-profit institutions. The DSST exams are accepted by 1,900 schools for college-level credits.
2. Prior Military Experience
Some schools will consider military training as prior learning experience and award college credits. The standard often utilized is the Guide to the Evaluation of Education Experiences in the Armed Forces, also developed by a division of the American Council on Education (ACE). The online guide allows you to conduct a search by courses and occupation to determine your potential college credits.
3. Documentation of Prior Learning Experience through a Portfolio Process
Every school has its own system of identifying training, courses, or other forms of learning that may qualify for college-level credits. As an example, the University of Phoenix provides a 93-page document of training-related courses that may earn credit. The courses are presented in this document by subject category and include aviation, business, communications, information technology and computer training, insurance, nursing and healthcare, physical education, real estate, and vocational training.
PLA policies and procedures
As a prospective student, you may want to focus your attention on your work experience; however, experience alone does not guarantee you will receive academic credit – there must be evidence that significant learning has occurred. Some online schools address procedures related to prior learning assessment on their websites. Let’s review some of these schools for a sampling of conditions and requirements regarding prior experience and the assessment process. As you’ll notice, some of the schools provide a list of fees and others do not.
• Capella University
Capella’s website indicates that there is a prior learning assessment available and if awarded, credit is given towards specific courses. The condition is that you have to demonstrate “college-level knowledge and skills,” and the benefit of receiving credit is that students are able to “apply these credits to reduce both the cost and time to complete their degree.” An additional benefit noted is that the “Prior Learning Assessment fee is substantially less than tuition for the equivalent courses.” There is an example cited of a student who finished the MBA program six months early because of receiving a prior learning credit. What isn’t stated is the amount of documentation that this student had to submit to earn that credit.
• Kaplan University
One of the first conditions noted is that “credits earned in any combination of prior learning credit will not exceed 75 percent of the credits required for degree,” and “students must complete a minimum of 50 percent of the major requirements for their program.” This could be a significant credit if your prior experience is approved. The website also notes that your application “must be completed prior to the first day of the course for which the transfer credit is requested.”
• University of Phoenix
The University of Phoenix website poses an interesting question: “Did you know that you may earn half of your credits toward your associate’s or bachelor’s degree, at less than half of the cost-per-credit?” There is a Prior Learning Assessment process listed and the submission fee is $150. For every credit applied towards your degree you are billed $75. There are two methods available to apply for prior learning credits: 1. Create a professional training portfolio for qualified training courses you’ve completed. 2. Write an experiential learning essay regarding an approved topic.
• American Public University
The Prior Learning Assessment process for American Public University is described as a method for students “to receive credit for knowledge acquired on the job, military or corporate training programs, running a business, working with a volunteer organization, or pursuing a hobby.” It is available for undergraduate programs only. This is the only website I’ve reviewed that has included hobbies in the potential list of acceptable activities and it isn’t stated how hobbies would be evaluated.
The process for this school is also more involved as you have to be accepted into the Prior Learning Assessment program. There is a document available that allows you to assess your potential, Am I a Good Candidate, and two of the requirements listed include a prior 2.0 GPA and a minimum of five years’ work experience since high school. If you are accepted, the next step is enrollment in an online workshop that can take four to six weeks. Once this step is completed you work with an advisor to complete your portfolio. It is important to note that you have to complete one portfolio for each course that you want to receive credit for, which indicates this process can be very time consuming. You also must pay a $250 fee for each portfolio submitted.
Overall, the documentation process may involve a significant investment of time, especially if you are required to attend a workshop, work with an advisor, or write an essay to demonstrate your subject-matter expertise or knowledge of the course you would like to receive credit for. You may want to evaluate the potential time investment against the time required to complete the course. While there is often a significant reduction in the cost of a course if you receive credit, instead of paying the full per credit tuition fee, there is no guarantee that after completion of your Prior Learning Assessment that credits will be awarded. The best approach to take is to contact the school and determine the Prior Learning Assessment process required, the form(s) of documentation needed, and the number of courses you may be eligible to waive if credits are awarded.
There is good news for students who do complete the PLA process successfully. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) conducted a study, Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: A 48-Institution Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes and found that there is a “significant correlation between the application of PLA (Prior Learning Assessment) credit and a successful college experience.” Students who received PLA credits had a 58% graduation rate, as compared to a 12% graduation rate of students without PLA credits. One of the primary indicators or reason for a higher graduation rate is that the PLA credits allowed students to complete their program faster than other students. If you believe you have qualifying prior learning experience, be certain to talk to your school prior to starting the degree program.
Have you completed a Prior Learning Assessment? Share your feedback via Twitter @DrBruceJ.
By Dr. Bruce Johnson
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