Reimagining Credit Accumulation for Adult Students

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Written by: Erin Whinnery
Jan. 9, 2018

Many high school students know they can earn college credit by taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams. However, returning and first-time adult college students don’t have similar credit accumulation opportunities even though they come to campus with years of professional and practical knowledge. Finding ways to help them capitalize on that workforce experience is high among policymakers’ priorities.

Prior learning assessments are one tool suited for the job. PLAs assess knowledge and skills that students have learned through work and other hands-on experiences. They receive academic credit if the assessment shows they have college-level knowledge, helping jump-start progress toward a degree.

The majority of PLA policies are set by individual institutions. We recently took a look at statewide and systemwide PLA policies and found that 24 states and systems have a PLA policy in place.

These policies include important guidelines for PLA implementation. For example, nine states offer guidance on the costs and fees — including transcription services, administrative and operational costs and testing fees — that may be charged to students for PLAs. Monitoring costs will become increasingly important in states like Indiana, where students can now use their financial aid to pay for PLA services.

Additionally, 11 states have set limits on the number of credits that may be awarded by PLAs to guard against accumulating unnecessary credit that doesn’t meet degree requirements. These credit limits vary greatly. In Montana, PLA credit may not exceed 25 percent of degree requirements; while in Kansas, earned credit should not exceed 75 percent of degree requirements. West Virginia code specifies the maximum number of credit hours that may be awarded; while in Utah, institutions have ultimate authority over credit limits.

Nationally, one-third of students transfer between institutions in pursuit of a degree. Accordingly, PLA policies should be crafted to support how students move between institutions. We found that eight states address a transfer process for PLA credits. In Wisconsin, for example, the receiving institution may evaluate PLA credit in accordance with transfer principles. In West Virginia, receiving institutions must accept PLA credits that satisfy core coursework transfer agreements. And in other states like Oregon and Washington, state statute requires articulation agreements for particular pathways and programs to be created once patterns are identified.

By offering additional methods to demonstrate knowledge, PLA policies can help adult students save money and accumulate academic credit more quickly. Students who receive PLA credit experience better academic outcomes — better persistence, higher graduation rates and faster time to degree — than students who don’t receive PLA credit.

Want to explore PLA potential in your state? The PLA policy information we’ve gathered can help states and systems reimagine alternative academic credit opportunities to be more inclusive for adult students.

Author profile

Erin Whinnery

Erin Whinnery

Senior Project Manager at Education Commission of the States |

As a senior project manager, Erin supports the foundational research services at Education Commission of the States and has a particular interest in the areas of postsecondary access and success. Before joining the organization, Erin earned her master's degree in higher education administration from the University of Denver and a bachelor's degree in English from Boston College. On weekends, Erin is an amateur crafter and quilter.

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