An Underutilized Tool for Building Tomorrow’s Workforce

Prior learning assessment -- awarding college credit for knowledge gained outside the classroom -- is a worthwhile idea that's catching on.
July 11, 2016
By Becky Klein-Collins  |  Contributor
Associate vice president for research for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

A strong workforce is vital to our nation's economic prosperity, and it has become more critical than ever that our workforce acquire advanced skills and postsecondary credentials. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require a college degree or postsecondary credential. But at current rates of degree completion, the nation is potentially facing a shortage of five million skilled workers.

There is a powerful and underutilized tool that can begin to address this issue: prior learning assessment (PLA), which enables non-traditional learners to complete training and degree programs sooner by awarding them college credit based on the college-level knowledge, skills and abilities they've gained outside of the classroom.

Many state policy leaders have begun to recognize the importance and potential of PLA and have been developing statewide strategies. As they create those strategies, they can benefit from learning what other states have done and can develop an approach customized to their states' specific circumstances. An updated report prepared by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and HCM Strategists, with support from Lumina Foundation's Strategy Labs, outlines the various approaches that states are taking.

There are many such approaches, including the evaluation of individualized student portfolios, in which students describe and provide supporting documentation for the college learning they have acquired through life or work experiences. PLA also can include corporate and military training-program evaluations conducted by colleges as well as "challenge exams," customized exams or even standardized exams.

Policymakers should consider a state- or postsecondary-system-wide approach to prior learning assessment for several important reasons. Such an initiative can help expand PLA options for all students by educating faculty and administrators at each institution about what PLA is, how it meets the needs of students, and how it can be administered with rigor and academic integrity. This can help dispel misunderstandings about PLA and foster greater acceptance of it among all stakeholders.

State- or system-wide policies also can address the challenge of students who transfer with PLA credits by clarifying how those credits are handled between institutions so that students know what will transfer and what may not. That discussion is likely to highlight a need for changes in policies.

State and system policy initiatives sometimes begin with the legislature and sometimes with the governor. A useful first step is for policymakers to understand what the state's current PLA picture is. They might conduct an inventory of PLA policies and practices at each higher-education institution, aiming to identify common practices and areas where policies that better harmonize with each other could benefit students.

Another valuable step in the process is to establish a system-wide PLA task force with representatives from each institution. Such a task force would be responsible for coordinating statewide PLA communication and policy discussions. Subcommittees might focus on specific issues, such as new guidelines for conducting portfolio assessment or developing uniform policies for transfer of PLA credits. A task force and its subcommittees also would also make decisions about which PLA policies should be system-wide and which could be defined by individual institutions.

However they go about it, it's important to get the conversation started. Helping more students earn a degree is critical if we are to ensure that our workforce of the future will be the strong, competitive one we increasingly will need. Prior learning assessment can go a long way toward making that a reality.