Prior Learning Assessment is the Future of Adult Learning

Prior learning assessment – commonly known as PLA or Credit for Prior Learning (CPL), is a powerful tool that can help learners achieve their educational goals more quickly and effectively. It has the potential to be even more than that to accelerate career transition for workers displaced by COVID and technological shifts - heading off the skills gap.  But to fully realize the potential of PLA, programs need to be designed to maximize ease of use and accessibility and to ensure that learners are fully aware of the opportunities available.  Not only should PLA shape the way we approach learning for years to come – it’s critical to enable reskilling across the millions of displaced workers in the coming years.

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What is PLA and how does it work?

PLA refers to several different programs that offer credit for learning and experience gained outside of the traditional academic environment.

Some examples of available Prior Learning Assessment methods include:


Test-based assessments to demonstrate knowledge. CLEP (College Level Examination Program) and DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Tests) are commonly used examples of PLA exams.

Portfolio Review

Portfolio review is most frequently used to evaluate past experience that can’t be captured by exams. Portfolio review requires an evaluator to conduct an in-depth review of materials to award the appropriate amount of credit.

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Review of training and crosswalks

This method of PLA is used to evaluate training completed and certificates awarded without specific credit earned. It is frequently used by those with industry certifications or military experience.

Demonstration of skill 

This method of PLA is commonly used in situations where skills cannot be easily or effectively evaluated based on exams or portfolio evaluation. An evaluator watches the learner perform task to determine level of competency and award credit.


All these programs provide learners with the ability to translate experience like on-the-job training and military service into progress towards a degree or credential.  PLA allows learners to increase their likelihood of successful program completion by making instant progress towards graduation.

PLA is the future of adult learning – here's why.

A McKinsey Global Institute report stated 16 million to 54 million workers may need to switch to a different occupational group by 2030. In order to facilitate this massive shift, programs that help these workers gain new credentials and degrees need to be at the forefront. These established workers have years of experience that can be used to accelerate a post-secondary degree or credential. With progressively larger and larger portions of these workers entering or re-entering higher education, creating a support infrastructure that accelerates PLA is critical to both their success and supports sustainable reskilling practices in the long run.

Here’s what PLA is already doing: 


Creating more graduates, faster

PLA has been proven to effectively achieve its main goal – increasing graduation rates and reducing the time it takes for learners to achieve a degree. A CAEL study showed that students with PLA credit are 2.5 times more likely to graduate, and in less time, saving between 2 and 12 months when earning a degree. 

Fostering an engaged and participatory student-base 

The first step to getting learners on pathways to new careers is to make sure they’re engaged and participating. 36 million Americans left college without receiving a degree or certificate. Those who have been removed from an academic environment for many years find it harder to transition back into educational programs. Establishing and encouraging the use of PLA programs can have a huge effect in helping these learners complete a program. Additionally, by immersing themselves in the prior learning assessment process, students familiarize themselves with available support and  infrastructure  while  simultaneously preparing to re-enter learning environments.

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Increasing educational opportunity for learners

Learners with access to PLA have historically achieved 9.9 more credits than their counterparts without access.  Not only does this show that more students graduate if they’ve participated in PLA programs, it is also indicative that PLA is directly linked to maximizing the value of available education. Additionally – these credits are often awarded for non-major classes, allowing students to dedicate more learning time to subject matter directly linked to progress on their new career path.

Maximizing the benefits of PLA:

The value for learners and institutions is clear – more graduates, higher engagement, and more participation. So why aren’t PLA programs more widely utilized?  

woman smiling because of online learning

Current issues:


Learners simply aren’t aware of PLA programs – a recent CAEL study showed that only 58% of college students were aware that PLA was an option, but even more strikingly that only 8% had utilized it.


With only 8% of community college students utilizing PLA – it’s clear that participation levels aren’t what educational institutions would hope for – especially considering the potential impact on graduation rate.


PLA programs have struggled because they are often extremely complicated and time consuming – causing many participants to fail to complete the process despite the likelihood of qualifying. Addressing these challenges isn’t simple, but it’s necessary to long-term success.

Here are three steps education institutions can take to improve the adoption and efficacy of PLA.

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1. Improve advisory infrastructure to increase awareness

Ensuring that staff are knowledgeable and available to help learners through the PLA process is crucial to their success and participation. Having dedicated resources available for PLA program participants means that they will have constant support through the process to overcome barriers to completion.

2. Build PLA infrastructure into existing programs 

Making PLA a core part of earning degrees and credentials will directly improve awareness and participation. Data providing clear insights into the characteristics of learners most likely to gain benefit from PLA matched with data from the programs themselves can provide a clear picture where integrating PLA would make the largest impact. Building up institution-wide PLA infrastructure would also dramatically improve the awareness and accessibility of PLA programs.

3. Simply the process

The PLA process needs to be fast, efficient, and above all else – simple. Reduce barriers to program participation and completion by designing these programs with a focus on student success. The less time consuming this process is – the more learners will participate. It’s important to strike a balance between ensuring the legitimacy of credit earned and the ease by which learners can attain that credit. That balance isn’t currently being struck. Many learners find the PLA process more complicated and time intensive than coursework.

We’ve created an extensive PLA infrastructure for simplifying the PLA submission process and helped colleges in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and West Virginia maximize their benefit. Learn more.

Prior Learning Assessment and the Future of Work

engineers in the office

We’ve talked at length about the widening skills gap and its impact on the future workforce – PLA is one of the key tools uniquely positioned to address this gap. Here’s how:

PLA directly contributes to workforce mobility by giving experienced workers a path to an in-demand degrees and credentials from academic institutions.  Many workers will carry decades of valuable experience that didn’t result in a specific degree or credential. Creating and promoting systems that translate this experience into universally recognizable credentials is applicable to all industries. Many industries partner with academic institutions to create apprenticeship programs - translating prior relevant experience into progress through those programs will result even more value. The future of work is dependent on rapid, effective reskilling, PLA and apprenticeships are critical making that attainable.

Technology is transforming the way we live and work resulting in millions of experienced workers being displaced. Programs that improve the efficacy and mobility of our workforce need to be at the forefront of all workforce development initiatives before the skills gap gets even larger. Prior Learning Assessment allows workers to parlay their experience into in-demand degrees and credentials. To maximize the value of PLA, we need to create accessible, effective programs that double down on what PLA does best – allow learners to translate their experience into meaningful career progress. The future of work is now.

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Check out our infographic to learn more!