Prior Learning Assessments (PLA)

Credits in this section usually have very specific procedures to follow, limitations, or are part of a special relationship. This is a unique category for credit types that don’t fit well into the other groups.

There’s no question that many people have earned college credit through Prior Learning Assessments -also sometimes called: learning portfolios or experiential learning. A Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) can be a way to use highly eclectic, very specialized, or massive amounts of experiences to your advantage. PLA is different from other types of college credit in many ways.

A college that offers PLA for college credit should be considered forward-thinking, and as such will also likely have a process in place that guides you through their process. A PLA process will differ from college to college since it is a highly individualized way to earn credit.

The essence of PLA is that you use the process to demonstrate that college-level learning has occurred. It’s not enough to document time-served, but specific competencies, objectives, or skills must proven. Work history, hobbies, or volunteer experiences are usually not going to satisfy PLA requirements, but may serve as the framework of how you’ll document and verify where/when/how your college-level learning occurred.

PLAs were Designed for Adults

Career Growth: There is no question that colleges advertise and market PLA credit to adult learners with strong career experiences who lack a degree.. but want or need one for career advancement. The idea behind the marketing is that you can turn 10+ years of strong career success into college credit. This works well for adults in many cases, but isn’t as applicable to high school students.

Transfer: PLA credit is going to give you transfer trouble, so the best way to use PLA credit is by earning it through the college you plan to earn your degree from. If your teen has a skill or ability that lends itself to building a PLA, wait until they’ve selected their target university and work with them directly so you won’t have a transfer problem.

Time Served vs. Competency: One important nuance of PLA credit is that simply “being” a violinist for 10 years, or owning a business for 5 isn’t enough to earn college credit. The time in the activity isn’t important, rather you’ll create a portfolio to demonstrate that you have met objectives or achieved competency of certain skills. Documenting how you have met the objectives or achieved the competence is done through the assembly of a portfolio, videos, written work, and other means. It is possible to have extensive experience in a subject without necessarily having me the standard for college credit – it is also possible to meet the standard for college credit with very little time served.

Course Match: Colleges won’t “create” a course or title for just any course your teen wants to PLA and award the credit. You can’t ask them to award college credit for “UBW401 Underwater Basket Weaving 4” unless they already offer “UBW401 Underwater Basket Weaving 4.” This is not because colleges are trying to be difficult, it’s because every course a college offers must meet the standards of their accreditation bodies as well as get approved through committees and in some cases their state. It’s a big (expensive) deal to develop a new course, so your PLA will either have to come from an existing course, or it will likely get assigned a default alpha-numeric designation that the registrar assigns when they can’t find a fit.

PLA for Teens

You may wonder when a high school student could (or should) use PLA to earn college credit.

  1. Your teen has a hobby, skill, or ability in something that is clearly beyond casual interest.
  2. You know your teen’s target college AND they offer/accept PLA credit.
  3. The subject or field isn’t readily available through other types of easily obtained college credit. (example: you wouldn’t use PLA for College Algebra, since it is faster, cheaper, and easier to get that credit in other ways, but you might use it for advanced skills in a trade, craft, language, art, business, or other niche)
  4. The PLA, if received, will count towards the credential/degree being sought.
  5. Find out the cost. Some colleges charge full price tuition plus fees.

When is a Prior Learning Assessment most valuable?

Assuming all the conditions are right, and your teen has a change to earn PLA credit, this credit still may not be financially wise. It’s best to do the math and find out whether or not you’re saving money through the PLA. If you’re not saving money, you may still be saving time – also valuable. The *best* case most valuable scenario for a PLA is when college credit is generated that counts in your major as upper-level credit. In almost every case, upper-level credit is the most expensive to obtain and nearly impossible to earn in high school, so PLA that checks that box is the most valuable.

My Personal PLA story (2022)

My youngest son started a welding program as a dual enrollment student in 10th grade, but by the end of 11th grade had taken every course they offered. For 12th grade I enrolled him in a different college so he could complete a welding degree and graduate with his high school diploma and welding degree simultaneously. Unfortunately, 3 very important classes didn’t transfer (11 credits), which would not only push back his degree a full semester, but it would delay enrolling in the courses he was ready for. My son had zero desire to repeat a full semester, and I don’t blame him. So, we explored the PLA with his new college. This was not offered in the catalog, I reached out to the dean directly and asked. His specific experience required several things, but I want to share them as an example of what others might expect.

  1. I had to send official transcripts from his first college.
  2. I had to pay full price tuition for each of the 3 courses (if he took them as a dual enrollment student they would be free…ugh!)
  3. Pay a testing fee.
  4. He had to meet with the department chair.
  5. He had to take 3 written exams, 1 per course.
  6. He had to perform 3 skills demonstrations in person, 1 per course.
  7. Receive pass/fail based on the results of the exam and skills test.

We dropped him off on campus in the morning and I picked him up later that day. He successfully earned PLA credit for all 11 credits, but it was an expensive and stressful experience. Still, we are both very happy to have done it because it accomplished a very important goal for me as the homeschool administrator and for him as the student.

The only small downside to the process is that these credits have not been credit laundered, so they are still non-transferable even after earning the PLA.