Credit for prior learning is showing value. Should your college care?

First-generation college students and individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds—those who can most benefit—are the least likely to take advantage due to a lack of awareness.

Credit for prior learning, commonly known as CPL, is gaining traction across the United States and Canada, spelling potential leaps in equitable postsecondary access. However, several factors could hinder its progress without immediate attention, declares a new report from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

Of the 400 undergraduate-serving, degree-granting institutions participating in the survey, 46% reported an increase in CPL pathways offered over the past three years, leading to 82% offering one or more CPL pathways. Furthermore, 48% conducted more evaluations and awarded more credit. Ninety-five percent of the survey respondents were U.S.-based institutions.

CPL is an assessment mechanism institutions use to grant college credit for learning that occurred outside of the traditional academic environment. AACRAO recognizes CPL as a professional proficiency for those handling academic records in its aim to create a more inclusive, effective higher education system.

The most common way institutions evaluate students’ CPL is through work experience and military training. Consequently, adult learners (whether returning to college or first-time enrollees) and military veterans can particularly benefit from CPL, AACRAO stated.

Institutions also commonly stated they provided students with standardized exams (90%) and individual assessments (80%) to prove their competency.

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AACRAO has high hopes for CPL and its potential benefits to increase study equity, believing it has the potential to:

  • Accelerates degree completion
  • Expand college access
  • Reduces student costs
  • Empower students who feel acknowledged for their experience
  • Recruit working adults
  • Improve retention and persistence

Room for improvement

Among the 18% of institutions not accepting CPL, half are not considering changing their policies.

First off, CPL still lacks widespread popularity. More than half of surveyed faculty were made aware of CPL by word of mouth (54%) or students requesting this form of credit (52%). Additionally, first-generation college students and individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds—those who can most benefit—are the least likely to take advantage due to a lack of awareness.

“It’s almost mystifying. Many people are unaware that it’s even available to them,” Constance St. Germain, president of Capella University, said in a University Business interview. “I think higher education as a whole is getting much better in raising the awareness of it, but I also think it’s not widely being used.”

Secondly, open survey responses suggest faculty are 1.) skeptical about rewarding CPL for experiences that may have lacked rigor and 2.) put off by the labor-intensive task of assessing credits. They expressed a need for a centralized CPL office or coordinator to streamline the work. However, institutions with 5,000 to 20,000 students were more than 40% likely to have less than one full-time staff member involved in evaluating CPL, and 65% of institutions don’t provide additional compensation for CPL evaluations among staff on hand.

Ultimately, the overall cost and financial considerations that go into evaluating CPL strain institutions, as do students who may need financial aid to cover its associated fees.

Moreover, inconsistent policies and procedures across departments and colleges lead to staff and applicant confusion over requirements, which affects their ability to determine the appropriate amount of credit to reward. Institutions must also ensure that they are complying with their state regulators and accreditors. As a result, 54% of surveyed institutions do not accept CPL awarded at another institution.

How can institutions improve?

Here are some of AACRAO’s suggestions for colleges and universities that want to move the needle on college equity.

  • Allocate sufficient resources. Create dedicated CPL staff, funding and technology to expand capacity.
  • Develop clear, consistent and transparent policies and procedures. Ensure policies align with your institution, your accreditor and state/federal regulators.
  • Raise awareness. Improve communication and outreach efforts, particularly for underserved populations.
  • Promote transferability. Collaborate with other institutions and align CPL policies.
  • Invest in technology solutions and develop systems for data collection. Disaggregate data to help institutions understand who is being helped the most and identify areas of improvement.
  • Evaluate the impact on learner success.

“Expanding CPL opportunities has the potential to transform lives, enhance workforce development and contribute to the overall success and vitality of our communities,” the report concluded.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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