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Prior Learning Assessment: Necessary Burden or Future-Proofing Strategy?

In less than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the world of work look dramatically different. Millions of jobs have been erased, automation has accelerated, and several sectors have contracted while others are booming. Millions of laid-off workers will need additional education and training to land new jobs, and they need it to be fast and efficient.

Meanwhile, the past two decades have seen an explosion of short-term credentials and education opportunities outside of formal higher education, from skills bootcamps to MOOC-based credentials from universities to certifications from companies such as IBM and Google. These alternative credentials can be more affordable and, by design, are more tightly linked to high-demand jobs. Their continued growth has been driven by the accessibility of online education and the ongoing shift to a “future of work” in which lifelong learning is essential and skills matter as much as degrees.

Altogether, colleges and other education providers offer at least 549,000 different non-degree credentials in the United States, often through programs that are online, low-cost, and much faster to complete than degrees. A 2020 survey by Strada Education Network found that 62% of adults would choose skills training or non-degree programs over traditional degree programs if they were to enroll in education or training in the next six months. Many of them hope to eventually layer that training into a degree.

The problem with this growing landscape of alternative training and credentials is that, while learners expect to receive credit for those learning experiences, colleges are often reluctant to recognize credits from non-college providers.

A key reason: institutional leaders see accepting those credits as a burden or a necessity rather than as a strategic opportunity to both diversify and grow student populations. Although many colleges are in dire need of student enrollments, it can seem like a Sisyphean task to evaluate an exponentially growing number of courses from an exponentially growing list of providers. Then there’s the issue of ensuring that the curricula from those providers match the rigor of the institution. And some leaders may see accepting outside credits as leaving tuition revenue on the table.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Every college has a funnel of students and prospects that starts with interested applicants and ends with graduates. Students fall out of the funnel at every stage, and colleges have few programs or tools to enroll or re-enroll them. But other providers offer college-level learning and credit at prices, on schedules, and in formats that colleges aren’t designed for — and in this way, strategically referring at-risk students to prior learning assessment (PLA) pathways can keep these students enrolled and moving forward when colleges can’t.

Even better, research indicates that students with prior learning credit are almost twice as likely to graduate as those without it. Having their non-college coursework formally recognized can motivate students to persist in college and help them graduate more quickly, making a degree more affordable and attractive in the first place. That’s good for students, and it’s good for the bottom line.

Compete LA, an ambitious initiative of the University of Louisiana System to re-enroll 650,000 state residents with some college and no degree, is an example of how strategic PLA can be deployed to help returning students. Through the Compete LA Academy, learners can immediately take low-cost, self-directed courses that allow them to quickly gain college credits. These credits can then be applied through a streamlined PLA process to any institution in the University of Louisiana system.

Western Governors University uses PLA to create pathways into college for working adults who are new to higher education or may be underprepared. The WGU Academy allows students who aren’t immediately admissible to take low-cost courses that are mapped to lower-division credit, and successful students are guaranteed admission. The institution is able to increase its yield, and students are able to move forward with their studies while taking on less risk. Unsuccessful students haven’t lost much money or time, haven’t depleted their future financial aid, and don’t have a black mark on their transcript for not completing.

This approach not only improves outcomes, but also opens the door to more students in the first place. Even before the pandemic dramatically reduced attendance, the number of students who enroll in college straight out of high school was projected to decrease by 15% in the next five to ten years. Thinking strategically about PLA positions institutions to diversify their student populations and better serve adult students who need additional education and training.

COVID-19 has only amplified this need. Demographics alone require a new approach to how we assess and give credit for learning. So far, colleges have been reticent, but a new, streamlined version of PLA could be a win-win for colleges and students in our transformed economy.

Article originally appeared in "Unbound"