Internet Explorer 8 and below do not support some features of this site. Please upgrade your browser.×

Award Credit Through Prior Learning Assessment

Establish a statewide system to award and recognize credits through assessment of prior learning

Create Smarter

To increase attainment rates, states must find ways to increase their capacity to serve more students, particularly adults with life and work experiences who need a postsecondary credential to advance in this knowledge-driven economy. Focusing on traditional students will not be enough. States and institutions can find ways to engage adult learners and re-engage those with credits already earned. They can also provide low-cost options for adult learners that shorten time to degree.

One proven method for engaging adult learners is to assess and award credit for prior learning, knowledge and skills gained outside the traditional classroom, such as open online courses, military service, work experience or other life experiences. A variety of assessment tools and options are available and being used across postsecondary institutions. States are taking a variety of approaches to creating statewide policies for prior learning assessment (PLA). Some states are enacting legislation, and others are creating regulations that provide various levels of specificity as to how systems and institutions should assess prior learning.

HCM Strategists and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) produced a resource guide for state leaders on State Policy Approaches to Support Prior Learning Assessment, which provides factors for consideration, state policy examples, case studies, a model policy and additional resources. The guide addresses several areas state and institutional leaders should consider.

Institutional and state policymakers should develop policies that ensure PLA credits:

  • establishment of PLA policy and the relative roles of the state, system and institutions;
  • transparency of institutional policies;
  • assessment processes and methods;
  • fees to students for PLA;
  • guidelines that ensure institutions allow for easy transfer of PLA credit;
  • consistent transcription and credit recognition for prerequisite, general education, program and major requirements;
  • opportunities for veterans to gain credit for prior learning;
  • strategies for raising awareness and encouraging student PLA participation;
  • strategies for building capacity at institutions; and
  • connections between the workforce system and PLA.

Further, they should ensure that PLA policies are transparent and that information about PLA opportunities is clearly communicated to and easily understood by students. Policies should not unnecessarily restrict access to PLA or cap the number of credits students can earn through PLA.


In 2010, CAEL conducted a study on the impact of PLA on the learning outcomes of adult students—Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success. CAEL collected data on 62,475 students at 48 postsecondary institutions in at least 19 states and Canada that offer PLA and found that adult students with PLA credit had better outcomes—particularly higher rates of persistence and graduation—than other students.

  • More than 50 percent of PLA students earned a postsecondary degree within seven years, compared with 21 percent of non-PLA students.
  • PLA students earning bachelor’s degrees completed their degrees three to 10 months sooner than non-PLA students.
  • Black non-Hispanic, Hispanic and low-income students with PLA credits have better outcomes than similar students without PLA credits.

The study provides strong evidence that PLA can help re-engage adult learners and put them on a faster, lower-cost path to completion.

State Examples

Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.


In 2014, the Maryland Higher Education Commission adopted revised regulations related to competency-based education and credit for prior learning. The Commission removed the existing caps on credits awarded for prior learning that could count toward a degree. Previously, no more than half the credits required for a degree could be earned through assessment of prior learning. The revised regulations were published and took effect in July 2014. The commission changed the regulations in order to provide more flexibility around the development of competency-based degree programs at the state’s institutions.


Minnesota has addressed PLA through system policy established by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (Board Policy 3.35), which states that “Each system college and university shall provide students with a means for evaluation of prior learning and shall develop policies and procedures consistent with Procedure 3.35.1 Credit for Prior Learning.” The policy provides considerable flexibility for institutions to use nationally recognized exams—such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or College Level Examination Program (CLEP)—or to use locally developed methods, such as a portfolio evaluation or other competency demonstration. The policy also states that institutions must advertise the availability of PLA to students. Separately, state law includes a provision requiring Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to award credit for prior learning to military veterans for their training and experience.


In 2013, the Ohio Board of Regents launched its PLA with a Purpose initiative through which the board worked with colleges, universities, and adult career-technical centers to identify and promote promising practices for prior learning assessment. More than 140 faculty members and administrators from institutions across the state participated in working groups or in a network that provided additional guidance. The initiative’s findings and recommendations for action were submitted in an April 2014 report—PLA with a Purpose: Prior Learning Assessment & Ohio’s College Completion Agenda.  The report offers five core recommendations: defining the processes and procedures governing PLA at Ohio institutions; improving students’ access to PLA; ensuring the quality and rigor of PLA processes; providing training and professional development; and clarifying the state’s role and responsibilities in the awarding of credit for prior learning. Each recommendation includes specific actions as well.

In June 2014, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed legislation that seeks to ensure that veterans receive appropriate credit for their military training and experience. The act specifies that by December 31, 2014, the Ohio Board of Regents must develop uniform standards for awarding college credit at the state’s two-year and four-year institutions, create a military transfer and articulation guide, develop a statewide training program for faculty and staff, and develop a website that provides veterans with information about translating their service to college credit. By July 1, 2015, state institutions of higher education must ensure that appropriate credit is awarded for military training, experience and education that meet the standards developed by the Board of Regents.


In 2013, the Tennessee Board of Regents adopted policy revisions to ensure a level of consistency in the awarding of credit for prior learning. The policy directs institutions to ensure their processes comply with the Recommended Standards in Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) Policy and Practice of Tennessee Public Colleges and Universities, which were submitted in August 2012 by the Tennessee Prior Learning Assessment Task Force. A working group that included representatives from 21 of the state’s 22 public colleges and universities developed the standards. Awarding credit for prior learning is one of the state’s strategies for meeting its postsecondary attainment goals laid out in the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010.


The Vermont State Colleges (VSC) is a system of three four-year institutions and two two-year institutions serving both traditional students and adult learners. VSC has designated one institution—the Community College of Vermont (CCV)—to conduct all prior learning assessment for the system, including administering CLEP, assessing corporate training for credit and administering the Assessment of Prior Learning (APL) class. The APL class is a semester-long, three-credit course that guides students through the process of describing and documenting their experiential learning in a portfolio. A committee of faculty and professionals reviews each portfolio and recommends the amount of credit to be awarded. There is no cap on the number of credits students can earn based on their demonstrated learning. Credit can be transferred to any other VSC institution and some independent institutions. More than 7,000 Vermonters have participated, and 80 percent of those who complete the APL class complete it successfully and earn an average of 30 credits. Costs include a three-credit course at CCV plus a $300 fee to cover reviewers’ time.


Washington lawmakers enacted a series of bills between 2010 and 2012 that led to the development of prior learning assessment in public institutions across the state. In 2010, SB 6357 directed the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to consult with a variety of specific stakeholder groups and develop policies for awarding academic credit for learning from work and military experience, military and law enforcement training, career college training, internships and externships and apprenticeships. In 2011, lawmakers enacted HB 1795, which directed the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, the Higher Education Coordinating Board (now the Washington Student Achievement Council), the Council of Presidents, and institutions of higher education to collaborate to address seven goals around increasing the number of students receiving PLA credits and developing the tools, policies and agreements for governing PLA. It also directed the work group to develop outcome measures. The Washington Student Achievement Council’s annual report to the legislature describes the work group’s progress toward awarding credit for prior learning experience. The group drafted a statewide policy for prior learning assessment and a policy for transcribing PLA credit, gathered initial data on the number of students receiving PLA credit, encouraged institutions to provide students with better information about PLA opportunities and hosted two annual conferences. Each college and university in Washington now has some form of assessment for prior learning.

 Other Resources