Interview with Nan Travers, director of the Office of Collegewide Academic Review at SUNY Empire State College who focuses on the policies and practices of self-designed student degree programs and the assessment of prior college-level learning.
Over the years, Travers has been involved in research in adult learning, including Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) and ways in which students develop self-regulated learning. She has served as an advisor to the Northeast Resiliency Consortium (NRC) since 2013.
PLA is one of the core strategies of the NRC to help students persist in their studies and accelerate completion of credentials. PLA is the academic process of documenting college-level learning acquired from other sources, such as work experience, professional training, military training, community service and volunteer activities, or open educational resources, for college credit.
Using PLA ensures that multiple pathways to learning are recognized by the participating NRC colleges and therefore help to accelerate the academic and professional endeavors of students. Each college has focused on cultivating individual plans to implement PLA standards at their institutions. In doing so, the colleges follow a strict process to maintain the same quality, integrity and equity as any other academic program at their institution used to award equivalent credit.
Q: What is Prior Learning Assessment?
A: Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) or Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) is the process by which verifiable learning acquired outside of traditional learning environments is assessed for college-level credit. As part of a current nation-wide push to return students to college and to complete their degrees, PLA/CPL has been identified as an effective strategy to increase retention and decrease time to completion at lower costs.
Q: What value does PLA deliver to the student?
A: PLA provides students with the opportunity to earn credit for knowledge they already have. In turn, this allows students to complete their degrees in a shorter period of time, resulting in less money spent.
In addition, PLA helps to recognize a student for their prior knowledge. It’s a very positive realization for a student – that their past experiences hold value. This leads to better student engagement, and research across the board shows that when a student feels connected and engaged with an institution they are more likely to persist in their academic endeavors.
Q. What student problems is PLA helping to solve?
A. In the world of employability, we see that many job areas require students to go back to school for a degree, even if they may have past experiences working or training in their field of interest.
PLA helps students to “skill up.” It is hard for a student to sit through a course when they already know the material. PLA emphasizes not requiring somebody to take a course in something they already know, and instead recognizes and validates the information they already have and allows them to focus on the skills and knowledge they still need to develop.
Through PLA, we can upskill the education of people across the United States to help meet national workforce needs. We really need to increase the number of people who have different forms of credentialing.
Q: What PLA methods are we offering to our students?
A: A variety of PLA methods are being offered to students. For instance, many institutions are now reviewing transcripts from other institutions a student may have attended, in order to gauge what a student already knows.
Colleges are also embracing PLA in the form of credit for standardized exams, including the CLEP and the AP exam. In addition, there is training that is evaluated by The American Council on Education, including military training and occupations and industry training, certifications and licenses.
The National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) also evaluates industry learning. As a result, many colleges are now accepting different types of prior learning assessment that have evaluated college-level learning.
Lastly, individualized evaluations (on a case-by-case basis either through a portfolio process or challenge exams) is another form of PLA being offered. The individualized portfolio process provides the assessment of learning that has not previously been evaluated by other sources, as well as areas of learning that are not standardized across training.
Q: How does PLA strengthen an institution’s academic brand?
A: PLA impacts an institution at multiple levels. It can help with recruitment, student financial management, retention, academic and faculty development, and partnership development, and provide competency-based assessments.
Because PLA is a very effective method to help students manage the costs of higher education, it benefits an institution as a way to help students stay motivated to succeed and attain their desired credentials. As an additional incentive, some institutions package PLA with scholarship money.
PLA further strengthens an academic brand because it is a really good tool to help colleges work with industry partners. This is mutually beneficial because many businesses may work with colleges to provide tuition reimbursement to students who are employed or trained by them. Many times partners have provided training to employees that can be assessed for credit as well.
PLA is also an important component to faculty success and engagement. It is a professional development tool for faculty, as it encourages faculty to learn more about what’s happening in their industry by interacting with students who have worked and trained in the field. In turn, they incorporate student experiences into their courses.
Q: How does PLA improve an institution’s relationships with both the community and employers?
A: Prior learning assessment can provide a bridge between industry and higher education. For example, SUNY Empire State College has evaluated the New York State Correctional Officers Basic Training. This evaluation provides 16 credits for those officer who have successfully completed the basic training program. This is equivalent to one full-time semester. Officers are encouraged to enroll at the college to pursue an associate and/or bachelor’s degree. We are often invited to annual meetings and other official gatherings to discuss educational opportunities with correctional officers. This is just one example of how an industry and a college can work together to improve workplace learning and help individuals within the community.
Q: How did the 5 critical areas of PLA come about?
A: The Five Critical Factors evolved from research conducted across 34 institutions. The study explored different PLA practices and the types of policies and supports that were in place. The study found a strong relationship between five critical factors: Philosophy, Mission and Policy; Institutional Support; Program Practices; Professional Development; and Program Evaluation. When these five factors were well developed, institutions reported many more PLA opportunities for students and ways to use the credits in their degree. From these results, the model has been furthered with a companion inventory that institutions can use to think through their PLA policies and programs pieces. More information regarding the Five Critical Factors can be found on the National Resource Center for Prior Learning website (www.nrcpl.org).
Q: How can PLA attract more adult students?
A: PLA is a good recruitment tool for adult students. By recognizing their past experiences that are equivalent to college level, students are more likely to persist and complete their degrees. In addition, recognition of prior learning encourages students to take more courses and garner future certifications and credentials. The costs for a credential is reduced when the student doesn’t have to pay for all the courses required. The most extensive research in this area was conducted by CAEL in 2010. The report is called Fueling the Race. As a result, we have seen that both two and four year institutions are embracing PLA.
Q: What are the benefits of transparency/sharing information about PLA policies and practices?
A: There are many benefits of sharing information about PLA policies and practices. The primary benefit is that colleges have a way to learn from another and better understand what works and what doesn’t as PLA practices expand. As institutions share, best practices become the common practices, which improves the quality of PLA programs.
Transparency and open communication are of great importance, as it begins to build in quality assurance for the policies, processes and program outcomes.