December 11, 2023

PLA: An Alternative Approach to Earning College Credit

Author: By Online Learning Tips Staff
Go to Source

Start a degree program at American Public University.

By Ashley Gleiman, Ph.D.
Alternative Learning Coordinator, APUS

As an adult learner, you may not be aware that you can earn college credit for what you already know. Aside from the classroom, college credit can be earned through a variety of options, including:

  • Work training
  • College Level Examination Program (CLEP)
  • DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST)
  • Excelsior College exams
  • LearningCounts courses
  • Military education
  • Professional experience

The PLA Allows You to Convert Your Experiential Learning into College Credits

However, did you know that the Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) provides an opportunity for you to earn college credit for all of your experiential learning? Experiential learning can be described as anything that you’ve learned in life.

This education can come in the form of hobbies, volunteering, independent study, traveling or civic duties. It can also involve work training, certifications and career experience.

The key is to be able to describe your learning in a way that provides direct evidence that you’ve already accomplished the learning objectives for a specific college course. This is where the PLA is useful.

How Does the PLA Work?

In the PLA process, you build a portfolio that demonstrates creditworthy mastery of a course and submit it for Subject Matter Expert (SME) evaluation by faculty members and deans. Building that portfolio takes time and effort, so assistance and/or guidance from a university instructor might be needed throughout the process.

Undergraduate students have the option to complete their portfolio by taking COLL200 (Prior Learning Assessment Seminar), an eight-week elective course in which the instructor facilitates the process of building your initial portfolio. Graduate students are offered a workshop option in which they also can build a portfolio, but it is not quite as structured as COLL200.

All portfolios consist of the following required components:

  • An educational goal statement
  • An autobiography that describes your professional and personal learning efforts
  • A professional resume
  • A narrative of how you meet the learning objectives of the course for which you seek PLA credit
  • Documentation — such as sample work products and professional certificates

Once your PLA portfolio is complete, it is sent for Subject Matter Expert (SME) evaluation. The SMEs provide constructive feedback, an overall assessment and a recommendation.

Benefits of the Prior Learning Assessment

There is a great deal of research available to demonstrate how students who participate in PLA programs are more likely to save time, money, persist in their academic pursuits and graduate. For example, both the Lumina Foundation and the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) have extensive data that you can access for free.

According to a study by the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Center for Policy Research and Strategy (CPRS), the overall success rate in earning academic credit for prior learning is an astounding 82%.

While the PLA has a variety of benefits, some of the top reasons for choosing it involve:

  • Less time required to complete a degree
  • Lower tuition costs
  • Elimination of redundancies associated with reviewing material you’ve already mastered
  • The chance to demonstrate learning for which there is no standardized exam or if you perform better using written assignments

Is the PLA Right for You?

While the PLA program is an excellent option, it may not be right for all students. Here are some questions you should consider before pursuing the PLA as an alternative option to the traditional classroom:

  1. Do you consider yourself a motivated learner?
  2. Do you consider yourself a self-directed learner?
  3. Do you prefer writing over standardized test taking?
  4. Most important, do you believe you have college-level knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that match a course within your academic degree program?

If you answered yes to these questions, the Prior Learning Assessment may be right for you. For more information, contact

About the Author

Ashley Gleiman, Ph.D., currently serves as the Alternative Learning Coordinator at American Public University System and as Managing Editor for Adult Education Quarterly. Prior to that, she served as the APUS Education Coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands and has over 18 years of experience in higher education, working with adult learners from various backgrounds. Ashley earned her Ph.D. in Adult and Continuing Occupational Education from Kansas State University, a Master’s in Adult Education from Kansas State University and a Bachelor’s in Communication Studies from University of Maryland University College in addition to several certifications and trainings, all in the pursuit of understanding and serving adult learners.

Read more