PLA and Vertical Transfer

Confessions of a Community College Dean

This one is in hopes that some of my wise and worldly readers know some useful things that I don’t know.  Happily, I have the best readers ever, so this approach frequently works.

It’s about Prior Learning Assessment, usually abbreviated as PLA.

PLA is a catchall term for a set of processes by which students can gain academic credit for knowledge or skills they’ve picked up in other settings,such as through work.  The idea is that if you’re able to do the things that a given course was built to enable you to do, then why do you need the course?  Awarding credit for PLA can save students time, which helps with completion rates; as we well know, time is the enemy.  It can also save them money, both in terms of tuition they don’t have to pay and reduced opportunity cost.  PLA is particularly relevant for students beyond traditional college age, since they tend to have picked up more skills and knowledge along the way, but it isn’t only for them.

Common forms of PLA include exams (AP, IB, CLEP, DANTES), conversion of industry-recognized credentials (i.e. CNA, ServSafe), challenge exams, portfolios (sometimes through CAEL), and recognition of certain military training.

AP and IB tend to be most common among students coming right out of high school.  Those students tend to be the most likely to want to transfer later for a bachelor’s degree.  Most four-year colleges publish the scores they’ll accept for credit, and the courses for which each exam will suffice.  Some offer credit and some only offer advanced placement, but there’s a sort of common currency across institutions.  A “5” on an AP is widely understood.

For the other forms, though – mostly the ones that older students are likelier to use – transfer is a trickier business.  That’s especially true for courses in the major, and for students who transfer prior to graduation.

(Although we fairly shout it from the rooftops, many students don’t realize that they tend to lose far fewer credits upon transfer if they graduate first.  Various laws and articulation agreements compel acceptance of most credits when the degree is in hand.  Absent a degree, though, receiving schools can, and do, cherry-pick.)

Anecdotally, I’ve heard that PLA credits outside of AP and IB are more likely to be questioned than are traditional course grades.  They’re considered more idiosyncratic.

So, here’s my question for my wise and worldly readers, especially those in other states.  Have you seen ways to improve the acceptance of PLA credits upon transfer?  If so, what made it work?  As always, I can be reached at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com, or on Twitter (@deandad).  Thanks!

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Tuesday, August 16, 2022
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Tuesday, August 16, 2022