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Recruit, Retain, and Graduate: The Benefits of Prior Learning Assessments

Updated 10/23/2023

A Prior Learning Assessment (or PLA), is an evaluation that reviews an individual’s educational experiences that take place outside traditional classroom environments. From military service to open-source coursework and from professional experience to volunteering, a PLA factors in "the learning of life" with the goal of applying it toward college credit, certification, or as a basis for further education.

Of course, valuing and leveraging prior experiential learning is nothing new in higher education; PLAs have been around in some form or another since the mid-1970s. But with more flexible learning environments and ever-increasing competition, there’s a renewed focus on PLA programs as a way for colleges and universities to not just reach and retain students, but to honor and reward the broad backgrounds and individual experiences of their learners.

PLAs offer advantages for students and institutions alike. If you’re considering adding or formalizing a PLA program, here are some benefits to consider:

Benefits to Students

  • Increased persistence toward degree completion. According to a recent study by CAEL (The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning), PLA students tend to display a greater degree of persistence while enrolled in college. Findings showed that 60% of non-PLA learners discontinued their schooling after the first year, while only 37% of their PLA counterparts had quit by that same point.
  • Higher graduation rates. Data also supports that PLA opportunities help students persist toward graduation. The CAEL study found that 56% of the students surveyed who had access to a PLA option earned a degree over the study’s 7-year span. Conversely, only 21% of the non-PLA students had completed their degree requirements during that same period. Also, of all the students who had not earned a degree in this time, PLA students were more than twice as likely to have completed at least 80% percent of degree coursework as compared to their non-PLA peers.
  • Shorter graduation times. It follows that when students can apply prior learning experience toward specific degree requirements, it shortens degree completion time. According to the CAEL study, bachelor’s degree candidates who had earned PLA credit cut their time in school by 2.5 – 10.1 months. Though this may not appear to be a major benefit for students, when you consider the reduced tuition it reflects and the slight timing edge it presents to those eager to enter the workforce, the numbers support a reasonable advantage.


Benefits to Institutions

  • Recruitment advantages. For institutions of higher education looking to increase their appeal to adult learners, the value of a PLA program can’t be overstated. Especially when combined with a broader and well-designed flexible learning program, PLA opportunities can be a valuable recruitment tool that delivers a tangible competitive advantage in the marketplace.
  • Operational efficiency. Evaluating prior learning and applying knowledge toward college credit can help take some of the pressure off of budget-strapped colleges and universities. When students don’t need to participate in unnecessary or repetitive coursework, institutional resources are streamlined.
  • Student loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing. All of the student benefits we’ve covered conspire to make PLA programs a key part of a positive educational experience for learners. And when students feel like their experience has been valued, their efforts have been supported, and they’ve been given every chance to succeed, they tend to be loyal brand ambassadors. A more active and engaged alumni base, strong word-of-mouth marketing, and deeper community ties are just a few additional ways that PLA programs can benefit colleges and universities over time.

Institutions that allow learners to apply prior experience and education toward their academic goals help to address two often-echoed concerns that students have: devoting too much time to college and spending too much money in the process. A well-planned and well-administered PLA program not only recognizes the variety of forms of real-world learning, but it also enriches the diversity of the educational experience and can help everyone achieve more.

At Enrollment Builders, our team of professionals offers a range of services designed to help schools reach and retain students, grow programs, and improve operational efficiency. If you’d like to learn more about what we do, please contact us at 513-518-7824 or request information here.