Patrick Lane, Sarah Leibrandt


In 2018, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) received funding from Lumina Foundation and Strada Education Network to partner with several national organizations to conduct a broad landscape analysis and original research related to the recognition of prior learning. As part of the Recognizing Learning in the 21st Century initiative, WICHE and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) collaborated with more than 70 institutions to research the impact of prior learning assessment (PLA) on adult student outcomes. Analyzing data on more than 230,000 adult students, we confirmed prior research that suggests PLA boosts credential completion rates for adult students and saves students time and money in doing so.

Yet, we found that only 11% of students in the sample earned PLA credits and the rates were far lower for Black students and students from low-income backgrounds. It is critically important to ensure there is better access to PLA (and other ways to recognize college-level learning from work and life experience) among students who have not traditionally had unencumbered access to these programs. The briefs in this special issue of PLAIO comprise a landscape analysis of PLA policies and programs that focuses on these and other issues arising in the practice of the recognition of prior learning, policies that encourage or limit its adoption, and recommendations for making PLA more equitable.

Below are just a few of the key takeaways and recommendations from this body of work. To learn more about our Recognition of Learning initiative, to read briefs not included in this special edition, and to read the full report, The PLA Boost, written by CAEL and WICHE, please visit

TAKEAWAY #1: Receiving credit for prior learning improves student outcomes.

  • Rigorous analyses strengthen evidence showing improved student outcomes from receipt of PLA credit. Using propensity score matching to isolate the impact on credential completion from receiving PLA credit in their 72-institution study, CAEL and WICHE found that receiving PLA credit increased the likelihood of an adult student’s completion by more than 17%.[1] The impact of PLA on credential completion was also significant for Hispanic students (24% improvement in completion from PLA), African American students (14% improvement), community college students (25% improvement), and Pell Grant recipients (19% improvement).[2] Although the study included a broad sample across two- and four-year institutions, the findings are not necessarily generalizable across “higher education” broadly speaking (nor should it be), but this work moves the evidence base surrounding credit for prior learning forward substantially.[3] In their brief, Recognizing Prior Learning in the COVID-19 Era: Helping Displaced Workers and Students One Credit at a Time, WICHE and CAEL discuss these findings and what they mean against the backdrop of COVID-19 and its accompanying recession.[4]
  • Higher credential completion for PLA students. This includes completion of bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, and certificates.[5] In their brief, Credit for Prior Learning in the Community College: A Case from Colorado, Rutgers’ Education and Employment Research Center researched the impact that grants such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program can have on PLA program implementation. The researchers found that receipt of PLA credit is associated with a higher probability of earning at least one of the credential types.[6] However, the associations are stronger for models predicting associate degree completion (6-7 percentage points) or any credential (7-8 percentage points) than for those predicting certificate completion (about 2 percentage points).[7]

TAKEAWAY #2: The equity implications of receiving credit for prior learning are complex but important.

  • The equity implications of PLA are complex. The quasi-experimental work in the CAEL and WICHE study shows that all racial/ethnic groups benefit from receiving credit for prior learning. However, as noted above, the benefits differ across groups. The differences across groups also vary with the outcome variable chosen (completion or persistence at initial institution, completion anywhere, or completion anywhere or transferred). Generally, Black students see smaller benefits from PLA credit receipt than their peers. Other research shows similar results. Rutgers’ Education and Employment Research Center found that among both men and women, and for both younger and somewhat older students, white and Latino students’ probabilities of credential completion are significantly improved by their status (approximately 20-23%), while there is no statistically significant correlation between completion probabilities and receipt of credit for prior learning for Black and Asian students.[8]
  • Access to PLA credit is another crucial component of equity. With the mixed impacts by race/ethnicity noted above, a second crucial element is the equity of access to PLA credit. Ten percent of the students in the CAEL and WICHE study received PLA credit, a number that drops to 7.6% when excluding AP/IB (advanced placement/international baccalaureate) credit. Compared to white students, Hispanic students had greater access to PLA credit (with numerous control variables added) while all other races/ethnicities were less likely to receive credit.[9] In their brief, HBCUs and Prior Learning Assessments, Thurgood Marshall College Fund detail the lack of access Black students have to AP/IB opportunities in high school.
  • The cost of PLA can be prohibitive to some students. Currently, fees associated with PLA are not eligible for federal financial aid, which means that most students must shoulder the cost of credit for PLA.[10] In their brief, An Examination of Prior Learning Assessment Policy and Practice as Experienced by Academic Records Professionals and Students, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) administered a survey to its membership. AACRAO found that over 20% of the 330 respondents agreed that institutional fees associated with PLA are a barrier for some students. This group of respondents indicated that students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and/or Pell Grant recipients are more likely to be negatively impacted.[11] In the research study conducted by CAEL and WICHE, 16% of adults who were not Pell Grant recipients earned PLA credit, compared to only 7% of adult students who were Pell Grant recipients. Yet, Pell Grant recipients see a greater impact from PLA, with their completion “boost” when receiving credit being 8 percentage points higher than those who did not receive Pell Grants.[12] In their brief, The Current State of Prior Learning Policies, The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and WICHE investigate the critical role states, accrediting bodies, and the federal government can play in making credit for prior learning more accessible and affordable for students with low incomes, students of color, immigrants, and adult learners.[13]
  • Lack of information about PLA limits the effectiveness of strong policies and programs. In their brief, Advising and Prior Learning Assessment for Degree Completion, NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) conducted a survey on institution advising practices as they relate to PLA. One respondent to NASPA’s membership survey compared their institution’s limited access to PLA to being like “a secret club,” adding that more could be done to make the process of learning about PLA and receiving credit more welcoming for students.[14] Thurgood Marshall College Fund corroborates this finding by suggesting that the lack of access to a PLA pipeline (AP and IB courses in secondary education, in particular) leaves Black students unfamiliar with the concept of credit for prior learning. Hispanic students often are advised to take some type of assessment to receive credit for their Spanish language skills – and this opens up the concept of PLA for them – but no parallel pathway exists for African American or non-Hispanic low-income students.[15]
  • Workers in low-skill jobs, often signaled by low wages, are excluded from PLA opportunities except in rare partnerships between large corporations and institutions. In their brief, Recent Developments in Prior Learning, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and WCET – the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies – conducted a case study analysis of several forms of employer-postsecondary partnerships. UPCEA and WCET found that management, leadership, and business acumen seem to be prevailing PLA opportunities, but are often difficult to demonstrate for low-skill, low-wage workers. Fifty-two percent of these workers are white, 25% are Latino/Hispanic, 15% are Black, and 5% are Asian American. When compared to the racial composition of the overall workforce, Latino/Hispanic and Black workers are overrepresented, and white and Asian American workers are underrepresented.[16]
  • The percentage of institutions that have access to student-level PLA data for analysis is small. Only 34 (of 400+) respondents to AACRAO’s survey answered the question about whether or not the PLA data is tracked in a way to support student demographic level reporting; of these, 56% responded yes. Even fewer answered detailed questions about how well different student populations are served (or are underserved). This suggests that the collection and/or analysis of data must be a priority to understand equity impacts.[17]

TAKEAWAY #3: There are significant opportunities to scale the use of prior learning assessment across campuses, but challenges remain.

  • Few students seem to take advantage of PLA opportunities. Among the 72 institutions participating in the CAEL and WICHE study, only about 10% of the adult students earned credit from PLA.[18] In the Rutgers study of the Colorado Community College System, less than 2% of the total population had received PLA credits from 2007 to 2010.[19] Interestingly, both studies saw a decrease in credits awarded for the evaluation of non-college programs between 2015 and 2018, which could be related to decreases in the military population.[20] The difference in uptake rates between the two studies is noteworthy as it seems likely that the sample for the CAEL/WICHE study selected institutions with a greater focus on PLA (although most institutions from the Colorado Community College System participated) and that there is likely significant room for improvement at many institutions. Although uptake rates for the two-year sector in the CAEL and WICHE dataset were lower than other institutions, they averaged more than 4% with several large two-year institutions achieving an over 7% uptake.
  • Institutional policies appear significant. The single greatest factor predicting PLA access in the CAEL and WICHE study was attendance at institutions that are supportive of adults, as judged by the adoption of several adult-friendly policies. The effect size for this variable far outpaced any of the other variables (by at least a factor of three). This suggests a strong opportunity for scaling PLA by focusing on institutional policies and practices. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that the results are not generalizable of the full U.S. higher education landscape and that there is a need for replication. In their brief, Learning Recognition and the Future of Higher Education – A Vision for a Post-Pandemic Learning Ecosystem, SUNY Empire State College and CAEL conducted conversations with several leaders of change within the higher education landscape. Drawing on these conversations, the authors suggest what a future higher education model and related policies could – and should – look like in order to reflect the realities of the changing world of work post-COVID while taking advantage of advances in technology-based tools and our growing understanding of how people learn.[21]
  • Institutions communicate PLA opportunities to students in a variety of ways; some are better than others. Regional accreditors, new federal regulations, and many state policies require institutions to clearly communicate information about PLA opportunities to students. Multiple briefs suggest, however, that students are not effectively receiving information about PLA opportunities.[22] In the brief, PLA from the Student’s Perspective: Lessons Learned from Survey and Interview Data, WICHE analyzes data from a survey administered to 1,184 current college students and from interviews with six college students. Students cited conversations with individuals (such as high school college counselors, academic advisors on the college campus, other students, or family members) as the main sources of knowledge about PLA.[23] Improving communication opportunities about PLA (through student advising, using technology, incorporating at all touch points, etc.) is one major potential lever for scaling existing PLA programs.
  • Collaboration across campus is important to build buy-in and scale. Creating policy alone does not lead to strong improvements in the uptake and use of PLA.[24] One respondent to NASPA’s membership survey suggested that achieving an effective PLA experience for students can hinge on the extent to which advisors, faculty, and staff across the institution regularly coordinate and share information. Another interviewee emphasized the importance of having an advisor who can serve as a liaison with faculty and facilitate routine discussions about updates to curricular formats while another spoke to the need for support from the registrar.[25] Several briefs across the Recognizing Learning in the 21st Century project pointed to the success of PLA programs due to a single champion on campus or at the system level, but without buy-in, this could lead to difficulties if that staff member left.[26]
  • Proactive student advising is necessary to support students in learning about and earning credit through PLA. Student voices gathered across the Recognizing Learning in the 21st Century project through interviews and surveys often reported learning about PLA from their advisor.[27] Institutional perspectives also pointed to advising as being one of the main, if not the most, important avenues for students to connect to PLA opportunities.[28] In the CAEL and WICHE study, although most (74%) of the participating institutions reported that they provide “a great deal” or “a lot” of one-on-one coaching to students who inquire about PLA, only 32% of the participating institutions provided “a great deal” or “a lot” of direction to coaches and advisors to ask about PLA any time they meet with students.[29]
  • The type and breadth of technology used to support PLA matters. Across the Recognizing Learning in the 21st Century project, we saw innovative ways in which institutions are using technology to support PLA. Some institutions automate the process of credit review through websites and online tools to conduct crosswalks[30] while other institutions use flexible, routinely updated, degree audit systems to help advisors help students assess the impact of prior credit on possible pathways to completion.[31] The majority of registrars surveyed by AACRAO reported using their student information system (SIS) to support PLA but less than one-quarter used other technology as a reporting system or data warehouse.[32]

TAKEAWAY #4: The “business case” for improved PLA at institutions is strong, but myths about PLA cutting into institutional revenue remain.

  • Students who receive credit through PLA take more courses overall. The CAEL and WICHE study not only found that adult students who received credit for prior learning were more likely to persist to a degree, but that these students also earned more residential credit from the institution, compared to non-PLA adult students. Across all institutions, the average number of additional residential credits earned by adult PLA students was 17.6.[33] This suggests that strong PLA offerings should be a key part of institutional outreach, especially during periods of fiscal constraint.
  • Myths still exist that strong PLA programs will hurt institutional revenue streams. During an expert focus group, multiple participants from membership organizations noted that there is still a strong perception among institutions that giving students credit for prior learning limits revenue because those students will not take those classes.[34]


The PLA Boost as well as the series of briefs in WICHE’s Recognition of Learning initiative offer detailed and granular recommendations to scale PLA usage. Below, we have attempted to distill the plethora of recommendations across the Recognizing Learning in the 21st Century project into a handful of recommendations that we believe, based on the quantitative and qualitative data available, can best serve students. We recognize that these priorities must be undertaken in a completely new national context compared to when the project began, with a new learning context, severe budget constraints, and greater attention to how such policies can promote racial equity. Importantly, we believe that these priorities are consistent with and complementary to other efforts to recognize and credential diverse types of learning.

  1. Build institutional, state, and system support of and commitment to effective PLA policies. There has been considerable success in gaining acceptance of military credit recommendations in higher education. Yet the acceptance of corporate training, which is evaluated using the same transparent methodology, lags far behind. Additionally, according to survey data, 80% of institutions provide credit for prior learning through at least one method.[35] It appears that there is general acceptance of the concept of granting credit for prior learning, yet the data show low levels of uptake and resistance to recognizing all types of learning. This effort likely should involve parallel strategies to engage state leadership with data showing the benefits to completion, reduced time to degree; institutional leadership with data supporting the strong business case for PLA; and faculty with data about subsequent course performance for PLA recipients. Further, these efforts should leverage well-supported methodologies of evaluating and granting credit for prior learning to expand offerings to recognize diverse pathways of learning. The goal is to engender consistent and high-level conceptual support for PLA, which can be followed with detailed policy and practice improvement.
  2. Adopt and evaluate PLA programs and policies with a strong equity lens. The research produced by CAEL and WICHE is compelling in that it shows strong effects for most racial/ethnic groups, but there are important differences, particularly when focusing on completion as the key outcome variable. The difference in effect size for Hispanic and Black students in completion is 10 percentage points, yet when the outcome is completion, still being enrolled, or transferring, that difference decreases to 5 percentage points, with Black students receiving a similar benefit to white students. Identifying and documenting these equity implications of PLA is an important first step, the field must work to identify why these gaps exist and how policy and practice can address them. Institutions should improve the data tracking of PLA (while almost all of the institutions in the CAEL and WICHE study could report on outcomes and race/ethnicity, other surveys show many institutions cannot effectively use data to understand its impact on outcomes). Like other higher education policies, PLA and the research community bear the responsibility of affirmatively showing that this process can improve equity in postsecondary education.
  3. Improve communication with students about PLA. A consistent refrain throughout this project is that too often, students do not fully understand PLA opportunities that may be available to them. Federal- and accreditor-driven notification requirements seem unlikely to address the issue. Instead, case studies of institutions with high PLA usage could identify promising outreach strategies. With substantial research into decision-making being improved by “nudges” and other lessons from behavioral economics,[36] campuses with existing PLA programs can test and evaluate different approaches to reaching students. Institutions must incorporate PLA messaging into multiple touch points. Further, evaluation of outreach strategies would be fairly straightforward and could help prove which strategies are most likely to reach students.
  4. Address gaps between access to PLA in the two-year and four-year sectors. Data show strong completion benefits in the two-year sector for students who receive credit for prior learning, yet the uptake rate in the two-year sector lags far behind the four-year sector.[37] Given the student demographics of these institutions, this raises substantial equity concerns. Recognizing further that two-year institutions are likely to face greater resource constraints, this will not be easy, but case studies from high-performing institutions in the sector can likely benefit the field and demonstrate effective policies and practices.
  5. Fund PLA as though it is a legitimate approach to earning a credential … because it is. With the advent of competency-based models that are covered by federal and state financial aid, there is little justification for continuing current federal policy preventing financial aid from being used to cover PLA expenses. Virtually all states (except Indiana) also prevent state financial aid from being used. This raises significant equity concerns as low-income individuals receive larger benefits from PLA but have less access. The U.S. Department of Education and Congress might consider allowing students to use federal financial aid to cover PLA expenses, while also providing necessary guardrails against waste, fraud, and abuse. In addition, with the eventual reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, policymakers should reconsider how federal financial aid can support alternative forms of credit-earning that recognize learning in all its forms. State leaders should examine Indiana’s results with providing modest support for PLA.[38] These changes would have important direct benefits for students and potentially help normalize PLA and result in stronger buy-in from institutional leadership as well as faculty.
  6. Develop consensus on policy and practice actions to support PLA. Across the Recognizing Learning in the 21st Century project, WICHE’s partners have identified numerous actions and policy recommendations to support PLA scaling. Examples include not differentiating PLA on transcripts; providing professional development to support PLA; improving data infrastructure; using technology efficiently; developing systemic processes to assess who may be eligible for credit from PLA; expanding the established work of NCRC (National Career Readiness Certificate), apprenticeships, and industry credentials to provide PLA credit to students with work experience; and, above all, including student perspectives in research related to PLA. This is just a sampling of potential policy and practice improvements but developing consistent messaging around key approaches could build support within postsecondary education.

We hope you enjoy this special edition to PLAIO and learning more about the findings, implications, and recommendations that have come out of WICHE’s Recognition of Learning initiative. We are grateful to our many partners in this collaboration, and to Lumina Foundation and Strada Education Network for their generous funding. To learn more, please visit our website,

Dr. Patrick Lane, Ph.D., vice president policy analysis and research, WICHE

Dr. Sarah Leibrandt, Ph.D., project manager, WICHE



[1] Rebecca Klein-Collins, Jason Taylor, Carianne Bishop, Peace Bransberger, Patrick Lane, and Sarah Leibrandt, The PLA Boost: Results from a 72-Institution Targeted Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes (Indianapolis, IN: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, October 2020), accessed on 1 November 2020 at

[2] Klein-Collins, Taylor, Bishop, Bransberger, Lane, and Leibrandt, The PLA Boost.

[3] Klein-Collins, Taylor, Bishop, Bransberger, Lane, and Leibrandt, The PLA Boost.

[4] Sarah Leibrandt, Rebecca Klein-Collins, and Patrick Lane, Recognizing Prior Learning in the COVID-19 Era: Helping Displaced Workers and Students One Credit at a Time (Boulder, CO: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, June 2020), accessed on 24 November 2020 at

[5] Klein-Collins, Taylor, Bishop, Bransberger, Lane, and Leibrandt, The PLA Boost.

[6] Heather A. McKay and Daniel Douglas, Credit for Prior Learning in the Community College: A Case from Colorado (Boulder, CO: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, October 2020), accessed on 24 November 2020 at

[7] McKay and Douglas, Credit for Prior Learning.

[8] McKay and Douglas, Credit for Prior Learning.

[9] Klein-Collins, Taylor, Bishop, Bransberger, Lane, and Leibrandt, The PLA Boost.

[10] Leibrandt, Klein-Collins, and Lane, Recognizing Prior Learning in the COVID-19 Era.

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