In her early 20s, Kiabeth Santos was well on her way to achieving her goal of becoming a nurse. She wanted to work in health care, and she loves working with people. But then life — as it often does — got in the way.

Now, at 31, this graduate of what she calls “life college” also holds a university degree. She’s a successful business development manager at a forensic testing lab in Illinois, a position that allows her to create partnerships with hospitals across the country.

Santos navigated the road back to college through dogged determination, all to not only grow and advance professionally but to show her daughter the value of education. Among the most valuable tools she used on her journey: prior learning assessment, which allowed her to receive college credit for the expertise she gained through life experiences.

Santos earned PLA by taking College Level Examination Program exams, writing essays documenting her prior learning, and requesting an evaluation of what she learned from a sales class she took through her employer. Each step — the exam, the essays, and the evaluation — led to college credit for her.

“I have learned so much through life experiences … through trial and error,” Santos said. “It was nice to show what I’ve learned, be it through my own life experiences or stuff I’ve read on my own, things I’ve done to advance myself outside of an actual school setting. Knowing that I had that option encouraged me to continue on with school. I didn’t get discouraged.”

Granting students college credit for prior learning outside of the university setting isn’t a new practice. Postsecondary education institutions have been awarding credit based on prior learning assessment, commonly known as PLA, since the 1970s. An individual’s prior learning can be measured in various ways — from formal examinations to acceptance of instructional programs an individual may have completed outside of school, such as through an employer.

As adults displaced from their careers by the pandemic look to return to education and advance in their careers, PLA is a “powerful tool for supporting adult learners on campus,” said Becky Klein-Collins, vice president for impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, an affiliate of Strada Education Network.

New research conducted by CAEL and the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education proves just how much of a difference-maker it can be for both individuals and postsecondary education providers. “The PLA Boost,” this two-year targeted study of 72 institutions, showed about 1 in 10 (11%) of students at the participating institutions received credit for prior learning — down from nearly 1 in 4 in a similar study conducted 10 years ago.

Among the other findings:

  • PLA students save time and money on the way to completing their degree. The researchers found that the average PLA student saves between $1,500 and $10,200 in tuition and fees. Those who completed credentials saved nine to 14 months of time in school when they had earned 12 or more PLA credits.
  • PLA students were more likely to complete their education. Compared to the 27% credential completion rate for adult students without PLA, 49% of those who did receive credit for prior learning made it all the way to the finish line.Klein-Collins cites what she calls the “motivational effect” that PLA has on students, in addition to its cost- and time-saving benefits. Data show that self-doubt is a major barrier to adults in postsecondary education, but a robust PLA program can make adults feel “validated by the institution that they are capable of learning at the college level,” she said.
  • PLA students earn more credits at their institutions than non-PLA students. Because they are more likely to persist and complete their credential programs, PLA students in the study’s sample, on average, earned 17.6 more credits than their non-PLA peers.
  • PLA can play an important role in addressing racial and social equity gaps in postsecondary education — but its use needs to be more widespread. The study found that PLA has a significant boosting effect on completion rates for low-income adults and adult students of color, but Black and lower-income students were less likely to have PLA credit than other students.

So could PLA, with its potential for both adult learners and postsecondary education institutions, be a key to skilling up Americans and unlocking social and economic mobility?

“We need more colleges and universities to expand and improve their PLA offerings, but also communicate to students that this is a really important vehicle for completing their degrees and doing so quickly and more cost effectively,” Klein-Collins said.

Crucial to this approach is buy-in across an entire institution and making PLA an integral part of its culture. Klein-Collins points to SUNY Empire State and National Louis University, where Santos earned her degree, as standard- bearers for recognizing and rewarding adult students’ prior learning.

Institutions that take PLA options seriously should mention them to students repeatedly and in different settings. “They’ll hear it in the recruitment stage, as they enroll, and not just once, but several times,” she added. It then needs to be “reinforced in the classroom by faculty members who are maybe observing students in their classrooms who already seem to know all of the subject matter they’re teaching.”

For institutions that want to do more to reap prior learning assessment benefits on campus, CAEL’s PLA Accelerator tool streamlines the PLA intake process for adult learners and equips postsecondary education institutions with the tools, training, and expert counsel to make the most of PLA on their campuses. Additionally, CAEL’s PLA Readiness quiz helps institutions discern how prepared they are to work with adult learners.