Understanding Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) for College Credit

  • Find a bachelor's degree

    Bachelors Degree Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Key Take­aways:

  • Pri­or Learn­ing Assess­ment (PLA) allows you to earn col­lege cred­it for knowl­edge gained from work, mil­i­tary, or vol­un­teer expe­ri­ences.
  • PLA can sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the time and cost of obtain­ing a degree by award­ing cred­it for demon­strat­ed skills and knowledge.
  • Dif­fer­ent meth­ods of PLA include port­fo­lio assess­ments, stan­dard­ized exams like CLEP and DSST, and eval­u­a­tions of pro­fes­sion­al cer­ti­fi­ca­tions and mil­i­tary train­ing.
  • Although PLA has many ben­e­fits, chal­lenges include poten­tial lim­i­ta­tions on cred­it trans­fer­abil­i­ty and vary­ing insti­tu­tion­al policies.

Ever thought your life expe­ri­ences could get you col­lege cred­it? That’s what Pri­or Learn­ing Assess­ment (PLA) is all about. It helps you get cred­it for what you know and can do, even if you learned it out­side of a classroom.

PLA is great for adults return­ing to school, peo­ple chang­ing careers, or any­one with lots of real-life skills. If you’ve picked up skills at work, in the mil­i­tary, or by vol­un­teer­ing, it can cut your time in school and save mon­ey on classes.

This post will explore how you can earn col­lege cred­it with PLA and why it’s chang­ing the edu­ca­tion game. You’ll learn about the dif­fer­ent ways to get cred­it for your expe­ri­ence. And you’ll see how it can make your school jour­ney smoother. Are you ready to trans­form your life lessons into valu­able col­lege cred­its? Let’s get started!


Table of Contents

What is Prior Learning Assessment?

PLA lets you earn col­lege cred­it for what you already know. It con­sid­ers your life, work, and non-school train­ing. With PLA, you show­case your out­side class­room learn­ing. Earn­ing col­lege cred­it this way has big pluses:

  • Save mon­ey on tuition
  • Fin­ish your degree faster
  • Get recog­ni­tion for your skills
  • Boost your confidence

Whether you’re start­ing or return­ing to col­lege, PLA offers a unique advan­tage. It’s espe­cial­ly help­ful for adult stu­dents. If you’re over 25 and going back to school, your expe­ri­ences could count!

History and Development of PLA

PLA start­ed in the 1940s after World War II when many sol­diers came home and want­ed to attend col­lege. Schools real­ized these sol­diers had learned a lot through their mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence and start­ed giv­ing them cred­it for it.

PLA grew in the 1960s and 1970s as more adults want­ed to return to school. Col­leges saw that many stu­dents also had valu­able knowl­edge from their jobs and life expe­ri­ences. So, they start­ed offer­ing more ways to assess and give cred­it for this pri­or learning.

Over time, dif­fer­ent PLA meth­ods were devel­oped. These includ­ed tests, port­fo­lios, and eval­u­a­tions of mil­i­tary and work train­ing. In the 1990s, orga­ni­za­tions like the Coun­cil for Adult and Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing (CAEL) were cre­at­ed to help schools devel­op and improve their PLA programs.

Today, PLA is wide­ly used by col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. It has become essen­tial for rec­og­niz­ing the val­ue of knowl­edge gained as a work­ing adult. It con­tin­ues to evolve and grow, help­ing more stu­dents reach their edu­ca­tion­al goals.

Types of Prior Learning Assessments

The pro­ce­dures and poli­cies for get­ting cred­it for your pri­or learn­ing can vary among schools. They include dif­fer­ent types of assess­ments to prove your knowl­edge and skills. Here are some of the most com­mon meth­ods used by colleges.

Portfolio Assessments

A port­fo­lio assess­ment is basi­cal­ly a col­lec­tion of your best work. It allows you to demon­strate your col­lege-lev­el learn­ing through mate­ri­als like essays, projects, and oth­er evi­dence of your knowl­edge. Experts then look at your port­fo­lio and may give you col­lege credit.

Here’s more about Port­fo­lio Assess­ments for PLA:

1. Demon­strat­ing knowl­edge: In a Port­fo­lio Assess­ment, stu­dents gath­er evi­dence of their learn­ing from var­i­ous expe­ri­ences. This can include work, vol­un­teer activ­i­ties, inde­pen­dent study, or train­ing pro­grams. They then present this evi­dence to show how their learn­ing aligns with spe­cif­ic col­lege cours­es or programs.

2. Reflec­tion and analy­sis: Stu­dents often write reflec­tive essays as part of their port­fo­lio. These essays describe their learn­ing expe­ri­ences and how they have led to col­lege-lev­el skills. This process is a key com­po­nent of the eval­u­a­tion process.

3. Fac­ul­ty eval­u­a­tion: Once the port­fo­lio is sub­mit­ted, fac­ul­ty mem­bers will review it. They will deter­mine if the learn­ing is equiv­a­lent to what would be gained in a col­lege course. If so, the stu­dent may be award­ed credit.

5. Skill devel­op­ment: The actu­al process of cre­at­ing a port­fo­lio can help stu­dents devel­op impor­tant col­lege skills. These include crit­i­cal think­ing, writ­ing, and organization.

Prepar­ing a port­fo­lio can be time-con­sum­ing. How­ev­er, it can be worth it for stu­dents with a lot of pri­or learn­ing. You’ll earn cred­its and save a lot of time and money. 

Your port­fo­lio is your spot­light. Make it sharp and com­plete. Some schools even offer class­es for PLA port­fo­lio prepa­ra­tion. Take advan­tage of these if you can. 

Standardized Exams

Stan­dard­ized exams are anoth­er way to prove what you know. You can earn cred­it with­out tak­ing the usu­al class­es by tak­ing these exams.

There are two main types:

  • CLEP exams cov­er many top­ics, like his­to­ry and science.
  • DSST exams test you on aca­d­e­m­ic and tech­ni­cal subjects.

CLEP Exams

CLEP stands for Col­lege Lev­el Exam­i­na­tion Pro­gram. It is a wide­ly used form of Pri­or Learn­ing Assess­ment. It’s a set of stan­dard­ized tests that allow stu­dents to demon­strate their knowl­edge. CLEP exams are designed to test a stu­den­t’s mas­tery of col­lege-lev­el material. 

There are 34 exams to choose from. They cov­er var­i­ous top­ics, such as psy­chol­o­gy, gov­ern­ment, lit­er­a­ture, and more. Stu­dents who pass a CLEP exam can earn col­lege cred­it for that sub­ject. This means they can skip tak­ing that par­tic­u­lar course.

Over 2,900 US col­leges offer CLEP cred­it. The exams are offered at test­ing cen­ters across the coun­try, mak­ing them acces­si­ble to many students.

DSST Exams

DSST exams are anoth­er way stu­dents can earn col­lege cred­it by tak­ing tests. These tests used to be called DANTES Sub­ject Stan­dard­ized Tests, but now they’re just known as DSST exams. Over 1500 col­leges award col­lege cred­it for pass­ing scores on these exams. Like CLEP exams, they are admin­is­tered at test­ing cen­ters around the US. 

At one time, the DSST exams were reserved for mil­i­tary mem­bers only. How­ev­er, now, any adult can take them. There are 30 exams to choose from, cov­er­ing a wide range of sub­jects. These include sci­ence, busi­ness, human­i­ties, tech­nol­o­gy, and more. This means stu­dents can earn cred­it in many dif­fer­ent areas.

Challenge Exams

Chal­lenge exams are anoth­er form of PLA offered by some col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. Unlike exams like CLEP and DSST, chal­lenge exams are spe­cif­ic to the insti­tu­tion offer­ing them. So they are unique to each col­lege or university.

The exam con­tent is based on the spe­cif­ic course mate­r­i­al taught at that insti­tu­tion. They will test your mas­tery of a spe­cif­ic course’s con­tent. This means that if you pass a chal­lenge exam, you earn cred­it for that spe­cif­ic course.

Chal­lenge exams can take var­i­ous forms, depend­ing on the school. They may include mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tions, essays, oral pre­sen­ta­tions, or prac­ti­cal demon­stra­tions of skills. 

Not all cours­es may be avail­able for chal­lenge exams. And each col­lege may have dif­fer­ent eli­gi­bil­i­ty require­ments. Some schools may require you to have pri­or learn­ing expe­ri­ences relat­ed to the course. Oth­ers may allow any stu­dent to attempt the exam.

Professional Certifications and Licenses

Jobs that require pro­fes­sion­al cer­ti­fi­ca­tions or licens­es can also earn you col­lege cred­it. Many schools rec­og­nize that these cre­den­tials demon­strate the same knowl­edge and skills you might learn in col­lege courses.

If a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or license is deter­mined to be equiv­a­lent to a col­lege course, you might be award­ed a spe­cif­ic num­ber of cred­its. The num­ber of cred­its will vary depend­ing on the insti­tu­tion and your cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or license. Some exam­ples of pro­fes­sion­al cer­ti­fi­ca­tions and licens­es that could poten­tial­ly earn col­lege cred­it include:

Information Technology (IT) certifications

  • Comp­TIA A+, Net­work+, Security+
  • Cis­co Cer­ti­fied Net­work Asso­ciate (CCNA)
  • Microsoft Cer­ti­fied Solu­tions Expert (MCSE)

Healthcare certifications

  • Reg­is­tered Nurse (RN)
  • Cer­ti­fied Nurs­ing Assis­tant (CNA)
  • Emer­gency Med­ical Tech­ni­cian (EMT)
  • Cer­ti­fied Phar­ma­cy Tech­ni­cian (CPhT)

Business certifications

  • Project Man­age­ment Pro­fes­sion­al (PMP)
  • Cer­ti­fied Pub­lic Accoun­tant (CPA)
  • Human Resources Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Insti­tute (HRCI) certifications

Trade licenses

  • Elec­tri­cian
  • Plumber
  • HVAC Tech­ni­cian

These are just a few exam­ples. The spe­cif­ic cer­ti­fi­ca­tions and licens­es eli­gi­ble for cred­it can vary wide­ly among col­leges. You will need to check with your school to learn about the process for earn­ing cred­it for pro­fes­sion­al cer­ti­fi­ca­tions and licens­es. And remem­ber, poli­cies and pro­ce­dures can vary between institutions.

Military Training and Experience

If you are a vet­er­an, you’ve like­ly gained a lot of valu­able knowl­edge and skills through your train­ing. Many schools rec­og­nize this and offer ways to earn col­lege cred­it for what you’ve learned in the ser­vice. Here’s how you can earn PLA cred­it for your mil­i­tary skills and experience:

1. Get your mil­i­tary tran­script: The first step is to request your mil­i­tary tran­script. Each branch of the mil­i­tary has its own tran­script system:

  • Army: Army/American Coun­cil on Edu­ca­tion Reg­istry Tran­script Sys­tem (AARTS)
  • Navy and Marines: Sailor/Marine Amer­i­can Coun­cil on Edu­ca­tion Reg­istry Tran­script (SMART)
  • Air Force: Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege of the Air Force (CCAF)
  • Coast Guard: Coast Guard Insti­tute (CGI)

2. Sub­mit your tran­script to your col­lege: Once you have your mil­i­tary tran­script, you can sub­mit it to the col­lege or uni­ver­si­ty you plan to attend. The school will then eval­u­ate your tran­script to see if any of your mil­i­tary train­ing aligns with their course offerings.

3. Cred­it award: If the col­lege deter­mines that your mil­i­tary is equiv­a­lent to spe­cif­ic cours­es, you’ll be award­ed cred­it for those cours­es. The amount of cred­it you can earn varies depend­ing on your train­ing and the col­lege’s policies.

5. Apply the cred­it to your degree: The cred­it you earn through PLA can then be applied towards your degree program.

Some exam­ples of mil­i­tary train­ing and expe­ri­ence that could earn col­lege cred­it include:

  • Mil­i­tary Occu­pa­tion­al Spe­cial­ty (MOS) training
  • Lead­er­ship courses
  • Lan­guage courses
  • Tech­ni­cal and voca­tion­al training

It’s impor­tant to note that each col­lege has its own poli­cies for award­ing PLA cred­it for mil­i­tary train­ing. Some schools may be more gen­er­ous with cred­it awards than oth­ers. It’s a good idea to check with each col­lege you’re inter­est­ed in attend­ing. Then, com­pare the costs and time you can save. 

How to Prepare for PLA

Get­ting ready for the PLA process may feel over­whelm­ing. But know­ing the right steps puts you ahead. We’ll guide you through prepar­ing for your port­fo­lio assess­ment for col­lege credit.

  • Dis­cuss PLA options with your school’s aca­d­e­m­ic advisor
  • Look into your school’s PLA policies
  • Build your portfolio
  • Col­lect all need­ed documents

Seek Guidance from Academic Advisors

Don’t do this by your­self. Turn­ing to your aca­d­e­m­ic advi­sor is a smart move. They can clear up what life expe­ri­ences might get you cred­it. Plus, they can assist you through the PLA process.

Research Institutional PLA Policies

Look into your school’s PLA poli­cies. Each school has a unique set of rules, so it’s impor­tant to know what they expect. Vis­it your school’s PLA guide­lines for a clear view of the process.

Developing a Strong Portfolio

If a port­fo­lio is how you’re being assessed, mak­ing it strong is cru­cial. It should have:

  • A title page
  • An auto­bi­og­ra­phy high­light­ing rel­e­vant experiences
  • Ana­lyt­i­cal essays demon­strat­ing your knowledge
  • Evi­dence of learn­ing experiences
  • Appen­dices with sup­port­ing documents

Gather Your Documentation

What proof you need depends on your PLA method. Here are a few things your school may require:

  • Port­fo­lios to show your work and skills
  • Scores from stan­dard­ized exams, like CLEP or DSST
  • Cer­tifi­cates from pro­fes­sion­al training
  • Mil­i­tary ser­vice records
  • Job info and per­for­mance reviews

Assessment Process and Criteria

The PLA path changes based on how you’re test­ed. For exams, your cred­it comes from your score. Port­fo­lios get reviewed by fac­ul­ty. They decide if your work cov­ers course goals. Chal­lenge tests quiz what you know about the course.

Cred­it is giv­en when you show col­lege-lev­el knowl­edge that match­es the course. Your past expe­ri­ence should meet the same goals and under­stand­ing that stu­dents in class learn. Remem­ber, each school has its PLA rules, so check with yours for details.

Benefits of PLA

PLA offers enor­mous advan­tages for your edu­ca­tion jour­ney, including:

Accelerated Degree Completion

With PLA, you can speed up earn­ing your degree. If you already learned some­thing, you don’t have to repeat it. This means you can grad­u­ate soon­er and focus on new topics.

Cost Savings

PLA helps you save mon­ey on col­lege costs. You pay less because you take few­er cours­es. You also spend less on text­books. Plus, you get to work earlier.

Recognition of Experience

PLA val­ues what you’ve learned out­side of school. It turns your real-life skills into col­lege cred­its. This makes it eas­i­er to get a degree.

Increased Student Success

Many stu­dents find that PLA can give them the con­fi­dence to pur­sue their degree. Once you see how much you already know, it can moti­vate you to learn even more. Stud­ies show you’re more like­ly to grad­u­ate with PLA credits.

Challenges of PLA

PLA col­lege cred­it has many ben­e­fits, but there are also hur­dles. Know­ing the chal­lenges is essen­tial to mak­ing the most of pri­or learn­ing assessments.

Possible Limitations and Restrictions

PLA has its own set of lim­its. For exam­ple, the num­ber of cred­its you can earn might be capped. Also, some schools lim­it PLA to par­tic­u­lar sub­jects or degrees. Make sure to check your school’s poli­cies before starting.

Transferability of PLA Credits

The trans­fer­abil­i­ty of PLA cred­its is anoth­er chal­lenge. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not all col­leges will accept your PLA cred­its. This might be a prob­lem if you plan to trans­fer or study elsewhere.

Quality and Rigor of Assessments

The qual­i­ty of PLA assess­ments might not always meet every­one’s expec­ta­tions. Some wor­ry that PLA assess­ments aren’t as rig­or­ous as tra­di­tion­al course­work. This might low­er how employ­ers or schools see your PLA credits.

Institutional Policies and Differences

Each school has its own rules regard­ing PLA. What’s accept­ed in one place might not be in anoth­er. This lack of con­sis­ten­cy makes it hard to under­stand the PLA process, espe­cial­ly across dif­fer­ent schools.

Equity Considerations

Late­ly, stud­ies have shown some equi­ty issues with how PLA is used. Here are a few points to consider:

  • Only about 11% of adult stu­dents use PLA for col­lege credit
  • Black, low­er-income, and com­mu­ni­ty col­lege stu­dents use PLA less frequently
  • Cost can be a bar­ri­er for some stu­dents seek­ing PLA credits
  • Some insti­tu­tions may not ade­quate­ly mar­ket or sup­port PLA options

Clear­ly, care­ful plan­ning and research are cru­cial for suc­cess­ful PLA pur­suit. Despite its chal­lenges, many stu­dents see PLA as essen­tial to their edu­ca­tion journey.

Success Stories and Case Studies

PLA suc­cess sto­ries show how stu­dents earn col­lege cred­it for what they already know. These sto­ries prove the val­ue of Pri­or Learn­ing Assess­ment (PLA). They show how it helps in both school and work.

Examples of Successful PLA Students

Many stu­dents have improved their edu­ca­tion and jobs with PLA. At Thomas Edi­son State Col­lege, over 4,200 stu­dents got cred­its through CLEP exams in one year. West­ern Ken­tucky Uni­ver­si­ty helped stu­dents by giv­ing over 2,000 CLEP cred­it hours.

Impact on Academic and Professional Careers

PLA great­ly ben­e­fits stu­dent suc­cess. For exam­ple, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Glob­al Cam­pus (UMGC), those who trans­ferred alter­na­tive cred­it courses:

  • Had a 22% high­er suc­cess in first-term courses
  • Were 47% more like­ly to con­tin­ue to the sec­ond term
  • Had an 86% high­er enroll­ment in the fourth term

These num­bers show how get­ting col­lege cred­it for life expe­ri­ence can help stu­dents do bet­ter in school and stick with it. Stud­ies prove this, mak­ing PLA a big help in get­ting a degree.

Lessons Learned and Tips

From these sto­ries, we learn some valu­able tips:

  1. Start look­ing at PLA ear­ly in your studies
  2. Keep track of your work and life experiences
  3. Talk to a school advi­sor to know the PLA rules
  4. Use CLEP exams and oth­er tests to your benefit
  5. Con­sid­er oth­er cred­it cours­es to help with PLA

Comparing PLA to Traditional Credit Earning

There are dif­fer­ent ways to earn col­lege cred­its. Let’s exam­ine how PLA cred­it com­pares to the usu­al methods.

Differences in Process and Outcomes

PLA and reg­u­lar cred­its dif­fer in how you earn them:

  • PLA cred­its reflect what you already know.
  • Con­ven­tion­al class­es stick to a fixed study plan.
  • PLA lets you learn at your own speed and schedule.
  • In tra­di­tion­al set­tings, you fol­low a more struc­tured path.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Each method has its good and bad points:

PLA has some strong points:

  • You can save both time and money.
  • It helps you fin­ish your degree faster.
  • It val­ues your prac­ti­cal life knowledge.

But get­ting tra­di­tion­al cred­its also has perks:

  • You can deeply study new subjects.
  • You get to work close­ly with oth­ers and your teachers.
  • It pro­vides a well-orga­nized way of learning.

When PLA Shines

PLA could be your top choice if:

  • You’re old­er and have lots of work experience.
  • You’re chang­ing careers and want to use what you know.
  • You served in the mil­i­tary and have valu­able training.
  • You want to fin­ish your degree quickly.

You’re not stuck with just one choice. Stu­dents can use both PLA and con­ven­tion­al meth­ods togeth­er. Think about your own sit­u­a­tion, how you learn best, and what you want for your future. This will help you pick the right path.

“PLA allowed me to turn my years of work expe­ri­ence into col­lege cred­its. It saved me time and mon­ey while val­i­dat­ing my pro­fes­sion­al skills.” — Sarah, Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion Graduate

The Future of PLA in Higher Education

The future of PLA looks bright as col­leges see its worth. Let’s see what the future holds for pri­or learn­ing assessment.

PLA is chang­ing to fit the needs of today’s stu­dents. There are new and excit­ing developments:

  • Online port­fo­lio ser­vices like LearningCounts.org
  • State-lev­el ini­tia­tives pro­mot­ing PLA at pub­lic colleges
  • Grow­ing accep­tance of non-degree credentials
  • Pro­grams designed for adults who have done some col­lege but no degree

These changes aim to make PLA bet­ter for stu­dents. Accord­ing to research, PLA stu­dents are 2.5 times more like­ly to grad­u­ate than others.

Potential Changes and Improvements

Col­leges are look­ing to make PLA even more ben­e­fi­cial. They’re focus­ing on:

  • Help­ing under­served groups access PLA
  • Mak­ing PLA prac­tices the same across schools
  • Bet­ter col­lect­ing and ana­lyz­ing PLA data
  • Low­er­ing the costs of PLA for students

These steps could help more stu­dents use PLA. Although it’s very help­ful, not many stu­dents use it.

Role of Technology in PLA Processes

Tech­nol­o­gy is chang­ing the game for PLA. It’s mak­ing things like online port­fo­lios eas­i­er. Plus, it’s help­ing with things like vir­tu­al chal­lenge exams.

  • Cre­ate and sub­mit online portfolios
  • Offer vir­tu­al chal­lenge exams
  • Eval­u­ate non-col­lege learn­ing experiences
  • Track and ana­lyze PLA data

As tech improves, PLA might become sim­pler and more open to stu­dents and colleges.

Closing Thoughts

Col­lege can be cost­ly and take a lot of time. How­ev­er, pri­or learn­ing assess­ment is a game-chang­er for many stu­dents. Don’t miss out on get­ting cred­it for what you know. PLA changes how we see learn­ing by valu­ing what we learn every day. Remem­ber, your expe­ri­ences are impor­tant for your edu­ca­tion. PLA is not just about get­ting cred­it; it’s about appre­ci­at­ing your life­long learn­ing com­mit­ment. Look into PLA at your col­lege today.


What is Pri­or Learn­ing Assess­ment (PLA)?

Pri­or Learn­ing Assess­ment (PLA) checks what you’ve learned out­side reg­u­lar school for col­lege cred­it. This includes work expe­ri­ence, job train­ing, mil­i­tary ser­vice, or inde­pen­dent learning.

What are the dif­fer­ent types of Pri­or Learn­ing Assessments?

There are sev­er­al PLA ways to get cred­it. These include mak­ing a port­fo­lio, tak­ing spe­cif­ic exams, or prov­ing what you know through tests and evaluations.

What are the ben­e­fits of PLA?

PLA helps you get your degree faster and saves you mon­ey. Plus, it val­ues your real-life expe­ri­ences. Peo­ple with PLA cred­its are more like­ly to graduate.

Are there any chal­lenges or con­sid­er­a­tions with PLA?

There are some hur­dles to PLA. You might face lim­its on earned cred­its and rule dif­fer­ences between schools. There’s also a ques­tion of how well oth­er schools see PLA credits.

How can I pre­pare for a PLA assessment?

To pre­pare for PLA, check your school’s guide­lines and gath­er proof of your learn­ing. Get advice from your advi­sor. If you need a port­fo­lio, places like LearningCounts.org can help you learn how to make a strong one.

What does the future of PLA in high­er edu­ca­tion look like?

PLA’s future is bright, with more tech, stan­dard­ized prac­tices, and ways to earn cred­it. Enhance­ments aim to ensure fair grad­ing and easy cred­it trans­fer. The goal is to make PLA a cru­cial part of get­ting a degree.