By Dr. Peter Smith

Many institutions can significantly increase their capacity to educate more learners, without increasing costs, by effectively granting them “advanced placement” towards the degree they are seeking. And research indicates that, for the learners that go through a portfolio development course that assesses their formal and experiential prior learning, the process is in fact a significant pedagogy and learning experience in its own right. Yet our current practices do the opposite, slowing students down, making them spend more time and money, and ignoring the educational value of a reflective assessment process.

For example, Kaplan University, where I serve as a senior administrator, has developed a portfolio-based assessment of prior experiential learning course, using the “Principles of Good Practice for Alternative and External Degree Programs for Adults” developed by CAEL years ago. After several years of experience, we know that the average portfolio is approved for 35 credits, or the equivalent of six courses. That represents a cost savings to the average learner of more than $10,000 and a timesavings of at least two quarters of academic work, according to our analysis. So, our learners save money through forgone tuition as well as by reducing time to the degree.

But there are additional, significant educational advantages as well. Learners who complete this process display more positive characteristics than their peers as students going forward. They perform better academically, persisting and graduating at rates over 70 percent. Their aspiration and motivation levels are reinforced by the practice of reflecting on the learning they have done, considering its value for equivalent academic credit, assembling it in a portfolio, and applying it as one part of academic and degree planning going forward. In fact, a recently released CAEL study confirmed these more localized findings using over 50,000 learners over 20 years. Of the institutions included in CAEL’s study, overall graduation rates were higher for students who engaged in prior-learning-assessment offerings. Fifty-six percent of students who participated in prior learning activities graduated with a college degree in less than seven years, compared to 21 percent of students who did not pursue prior learning activities. The findings also confirm that time to degree for students with prior learning is less than those without prior learning, as students with prior learning save between 2.5 and 10.1 months in pursuit of their degrees.

Programs like the one that I’ve described, applied broadly, are not only good for learners, they increase the efficiency of the institution. When institutions refocus policy and practice on what students know, give them advanced placement based on their other assessed learning, and enhance their progress to the degree, they can educate more people over the same period of time. In business terms, this is an increase in efficiency and effectiveness. In educational terms, it is a  long-overdue learner and learning-focused practice. From a societal perspective, generating more graduates ready to work for the same amount of overhead with a reduced cost to the student is a good deal all the way around.

Although some would argue that it is not easy to do this kind of advanced placement based on assessment of prior learning, using course equivalents and a portfolio approach, scaled through technology make it entirely possible. The hard fact is that many faculty members do not want to let this kind of learning “in” to the degree stream. Why? Because they fear that it is not rigorous enough. Most faculty members assume that acceptable learning only occurs in their classroom, under their supervision, and through archaic means—like the lecture hall.

But just because learning hasn’t been supervised doesn’t mean it wasn’t acquired. We’ve come too far in our research and pedagogy to believe that any more. College-level learning can occur in any arena, and it’s time that we educators recognize it to assist students with degree attainment. Students in Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) programs are held to the same high standards as any traditional student. They still have to prove—one way or another—that they meet the same course outcomes that other students have to meet to pass that course. If you focus on the assessment of learning and hold students to the same standards, the quality of learning will speak for itself.

Low-Hanging Fruit No. 1: Portability by Dr. Peter Smith


  1. Keith thanks for following up with this second piece in the series. I really appreciate the value in Prior Learning Assessment. It’s great to see some quantification of the value by someone I respect as much as Dr. Peter Smith.


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