BLOG: Following Three Guiding Principles Helps Align Non-Credit to Credit Pathways

Achieving the Dream released an exploratory study in April 2018 of more than 200 institutions to understand ways to increase postsecondary success for adult students. Pathways to Align Career and Educational Choices for Adult Learners identified three approaches that colleges may offer to encourage their adult students to persist and complete their studies:


  1. prior learning assessments (PLA)

  2. resources specific to adult learner needs, and

  3. clear pathways to academic and career goals.

This blog briefly summarizes each of these strategies.

Prior Learning Assessments

Prior Learning Assessment, or Credit for Prior Learning, recognizes what students learn outside the traditional, credit-based college classroom setting. PLA can provide credit for a wide range of nontraditional learning from employment and military service or training to personal educational experiences through travel, hobbies, civic activities, or volunteer services. In addition, students enrolled in non-credit training programs that align with traditional credit programs (such as in healthcare, information technology, or engineering technology) may be provided with academic credit upon successful completion.

Providing adult learners with academic credit through PLA for skills and knowledge they already have mastered gives them credit toward an academic credential and helps avoid unnecessary coursework. Sometimes PLA fulfills prerequisite requirements or gives students advanced standing in a program. When PLA is an option, students are more likely to persist from term to term and year to year. In addition, costs are lower because students take fewer courses and the time to complete a credential is reduced.

Awarding credit for PLA is typically accomplished through non-credit-to-credit articulation crosswalks that align college courses and their associated credits with a non-credit experience. 

Resources Specific to the Needs of Adult Learners

One of the clearest supports for adult learners is a range of financial aid options. Employee-friendly course schedules and a cohort model of enrollment can make classes more accessible and provide opportunities for peer support. Adult students with families often benefit from child care services and transportation assistance. These can take the form of subsidies, guidance, or free services. faculty, advisors, counselors, and administrators who have been specifically trained to address adult students’ distinct needs and are available at times that adult students are on campus are also very helpful. In addition, campus engagement initiatives that focus specifically on adult students also have been shown to improve persistence and completion.

Pathways to Academic and Career Goals

Students are more likely to succeed in their coursework, persist, and earn a credential in a timely manner when they choose a program and develop a plan early in their academic journey. The use of pathways, which specify required courses and milestones, represents an intentional shift away from a model that expects students to navigate course offerings on their own toward a more prescriptive and cohesive strategy. Curricular maps, together with critical support services such as regular, meaningful touchpoints with advisors, called proactive advising, are common features of pathways.

Full descriptions as well as individual college case studies are included in ATD’s published report Pathways to Align Career and Educational Choices for Adult Learners.

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