The Mixed Methods Blog

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Prior Learning Assessment: A Key Piece of the Credit-Noncredit Discussion

Adult students work together in class

As community colleges try to find ways to attract adults back to campus, many are combining credit and noncredit workforce programs to give students the option of using short-term training as a starting point for programs that can lead to degrees. But for these new combined programs to be as effective and efficient as possible for adults who have spent time in the workforce, the colleges must create a smooth system for awarding college credit for their work experience.

The recent focus on credit and noncredit mergers allows for a reconsideration of prior learning assessment (PLA) as an essential means for attracting adults back to complete programs or giving them a head start on a career change. The combination of an effective PLA strategy with the implementation of short-term credit courses specifically linked to programs may significantly increase adult enrollment in career and technical programs.

While almost all community colleges have some form of PLA, awarding credit is often a complex, lengthy process that is poorly understood by first-line staff or visible to incoming students. If PLA could be developed as part of the merger of credit and noncredit programs, it could not only lead to increased adult enrollment in community colleges but also provide a significant new entry point for career pathways. However, colleges need to rethink PLA before it can play this role.

First, the process of awarding credit through PLA must be centralized with institutional rules that are clear and understood by personnel in all parts of the college. Faculty should have a major role in mapping the specific skills that need to be mastered in their courses, but the system should be designed and implemented as part of an institutional strategy to increase working adults’ acceleration toward a career pathway and a degree. This eliminates the highly decentralized approach that is common, where each area of the college designs PLA examinations or reviews, resulting in huge inconsistencies.

Instead, there should be a PLA office that is easy to identify and available to students before enrollment. This office should develop a standard set of protocols that staff can use to quickly determine if students qualify and to explain what credit they can earn through PLA if they enroll at the institution. For students attracted to short-term programs, this may incentivize their enrollment in a longer-term career pathways program that can be more valuable in the labor market. The Ivy Tech system in Indiana has developed these capabilities and benefited from adult enrollment as a result.

Second, the system has to effectively match the skills learned on the job with the skills found in specific occupational programs. Ideally, this should not be based on a test or other inquiry but on a process of matching the skills the student thinks they have mastered with what the faculty teaches in their class. In some cases, the credit may be awarded after a student has completed related college courses. As part of this process, counselors have an opportunity to alert prospective students about how their skills learned on the job may match with skills in other occupational areas. This "cross walk" approach may focus on adults who want an occupational change but are unsure which direction they wish to take.

Third, a multi-measures approach should be used in the process of determining whether skills learned on the job match those in specific courses and programs. In some cases, a competency-based system might be used to judge the performance of specific occupational skills; in other cases, a portfolio of projects or employer validation could be used. In some cases, industry held certifications and/or state licenses may serve as a proxy. In developing these instruments to measure prior learning, some emphasis should be placed upon the accumulation of foundation skills, including communication, collaboration, and project management skills.

Finally, the PLA process must be designed to award credit toward introductory and required courses in programs. Too many PLA assessments merely grant elective credit and leave adults to take introductory courses that do not count toward program completion. The purpose of PLA is to determine if the student has already acquired some introductory skills, which will allow them to accelerate their college completion. This will add value for students.

No doubt, this approach will raise the cost and test the capacity of community colleges in these difficult times. Yet, the payoff in terms of increased adult enrollment may significantly aid many community colleges by boosting enrollment. It will also serve to clarify the connections between learning experiences in the classroom and those at the workplace. Considering these connections helps the institution sort out what programs it wants to invest in, helping to further to align its workforce programs with the needs of students, employers, and the community.

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