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Credit for Prior Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting College Credit for Life Experience


Many of today's best and brightest students bring a wealth of life experience to the college environment. Life experience can equip you with unique and valuable perspectives and influence your takeaways as you navigate challenging coursework. However, translating experience into college credits isn’t always straightforward, and many students are entirely unaware that this is possible in the first place. 

Enter the prior learning assessment: a structured solution for helping experienced students secure the college credits they've already earned outside of the conventional classroom. Prior learning assessments bring a world of opportunity to experienced students, but they can be a bit tricky to understand. 

To help, we’ve provided a full breakdown of the prior learning assessment—including what it is, how it works, and how you can make the most of this opportunity.

What Is a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)? 

A prior learning assessment (PLA) provides a formal process for recognizing various forms of learning that occur outside the scope of a traditional college environment. This strategy powerfully reminds students that they can gain valuable insights through military training, in the workplace, and in many other settings or scenarios. 

The ultimate mission of the PLA is to navigate two competing demands: the desire for experienced students to expedite their college journey and the need for a college degree to verify true competence, whether gained within or outside the academic environment. As such, the PLA confirms students' experience, knowledge, and skill sets while determining where gaps exist and how a college program can bridge the divide. 

What Kind of Experience Is Considered for PLA? 

Numerous types of experience can qualify for credit. The familiar concept of transfer credits may come to mind, but exams and life experience can also fulfill this function. Many students are awarded credits in recognition of the following valuable experiences. 

Military Training Credits 

The process for securing military-oriented credits begins with the Joint Services Transcript (JST). Relevant to those who have served with the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard, the JST provides details surrounding previously completed courses. 

Classes outlined within the JST will have been evaluated by the American Council on Education (ACE). Each transcript contains full descriptions detailing completed classes along with credit recommendations. Furthermore, the JST highlights past military occupations, including descriptions of these roles plus the skill levels and further credit recommendations. 

Standardized Exams and Their Role 

Several standardized exams help students from all walks of life confirm their expertise and earn credit along the way. These exams can be helpful for students who have gained relevant knowledge through a variety of means, such as advanced coursework in high school or: 

  • CLEP – Administered by the College Board, the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is a well-known testing option that verifies student mastery of introductory college coursework. 
  • DSST – Once known as DANTES, the DSST program is strongly associated with military test centers, but these exams are available to civilians as well. Although more colleges recognize CLEP, DSST tests provide the unique opportunity to gain credits for higher-level coursework. 
  • NOCTI – Often centered on career and technical offerings, the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) confirms skill development in everything from auto mechanics to administrative assisting. 

Industry-Specific Certifications 

Many colleges build respected industry certifications into the PLA process. Typically, these certification programs will need to be evaluated and verified by the National College Credit Recommendation Service (CCRS) or the ACE. As with exams and military experience, certifications must apply to the intended program of study. 

Alternative Online Providers 

Students enjoy access to an abundance of online learning opportunities these days, but not all are accredited or accepted for prior learning credit. Much depends on the quality of these programs and the concepts they cover. 

When in doubt, discuss possible equivalencies with college advisors, who can help assess previously completed online courses. Examples of providers with classes that may be accepted include and

How Is Prior Learning Evaluated? 

If the descriptions outlined above are any indication, not just any experience will qualify for prior learning credits. A high bar must be cleared to verify that all students seeking credits for prior learning have developed the necessary competencies. 

Therein lies the need for a detailed evaluation, which thoroughly examines each class, certification, exam, or experience to reveal the extent to which it fulfills college-based learning outcomes. Remember, credits are not granted based on the amount of experience acquired or the time dedicated to gaining that experience. Instead, these credits reference positive learning outcomes related to specific experiences. 

Portfolio Assessment in Detail 

Portfolio assessments involve extensive one-on-one interactions with designated faculty members, who carefully examine not only portfolio submissions but also related documentation. The goal: determine whether credit awards are possible based on highlighted experiences. This detailed process can take up to six months to complete. 

The Impact of a Strong Portfolio 

Portfolio quality plays heavily into PLA results, as a weak portfolio might not correctly convey what, exactly, students have learned or which skills they have mastered. When available, the best solution is to seek official confirmation from resources such as the JST. When this is not a viable option, however, mimicking the organization and structure of the JST may help—at a minimum, clearly outlining dates, locations, supervisors, or instructors. 

Beyond this, each entry must include details about the concepts covered or competencies secured through the experience in question. These skills or topics should clearly relate to the material covered in relevant college coursework. 

Institutional Role in Recognizing Prior Learning 

As you explore college programs, be mindful of how prior learning is handled. You will notice minor differences in PLA procedures, but the main takeaway should always be that colleges respect previous learning and encourage students to continue advancing their skills. 

The Role of Advising for Prior Learning Credits 

Advising has a valuable role in securing and making the most of prior learning credits. Through interactions with advisors, students can get a better sense of what they've accomplished and where additional coursework is still needed. An advisor should reveal which skill gaps need to be addressed and how specific college courses will help. 

The Role of the Registrar in Credit Evaluation 

Following a faculty-directed assessment process, approved prior learning can be submitted to the Registrar’s Office, which is then responsible for awarding and applying relevant credits. These credits do not have grades attached, so they will not influence the eventual grade point average. 

At this point, academic specialists from the Registrar's Office can reveal how credits secured through prior learning fit into the college picture, highlight remaining curriculum requirements, and offer insight into what it will take to graduate. 

Policies Governing Prior Learning Credit 

Strict policies bring structure to the PLA process, ensuring that credits are granted and allocated fairly. These policies are implemented at the state level, by accrediting bodies, and by the colleges that award credit for prior learning. 

Accreditation and Its Influence on Prior Learning Credit 

Accreditation confirms that college courses meet an acceptable threshold regarding quality of instruction. Accreditation is often a key point of concern when selecting a program, but it may also affect how readily prior learning experiences are accepted for credits. Transfer courses should come from regionally accredited institutions, while resources like ACE and CCRS serve a similar function for other forms of experience. 

Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) Statutes and Their Relevance 

Several states and school systems maintain strict prior learning statutes that encourage or require colleges to recognize experiences (such as military training) that have allowed newly enrolled students to gain relevant skills. The Vermont Statutes, for instance, reference the need for credit to be awarded if students have completed equivalent courses from accredited post-secondary institutions. 

How Prior Learning Credits Benefit Students 

Students can benefit significantly from prior learning opportunities, which help them make swift progress toward graduation while providing a much-needed confidence boost. The more you understand these advantages, the more willing you'll be to put in the work and get your prior learning recognized. 

Saving Time and Money Through Prior Learning Credits

For many students, the main benefit of the PLA is simple: It is easier to avoid taking classes covering already-acquired competencies. PLA, in turn, can lead to significant savings; fewer courses translate to a shorter graduation timeline, fewer tuition bills, and expedited entry into the desired field or occupation. 

Empowering Adult Learners Through Recognition of Prior Learning 

Adult learners face various challenges, ranging from financial concerns to busy schedules, and—though PLAs can provide practical solutions for these issues—prior learning credits also fulfill the emotional need and desire to feel confident and empowered while navigating the college experience. 

Students take pride in their past accomplishments and look forward to a bright future by examining their portfolios and reflecting on all they've learned. 

What Happens If Your Learning Experience Hasn’t Been Evaluated Already? 

Champlain College Online is a trusted institution that offers credit for prior learning. If you are interested in receiving credit for prior learning, our team is here to guide you through every step of the evaluation process. We’ll work closely with you, providing valuable insight into your assessment and related educational opportunities. Reach out today to learn more. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

It's normal to feel confused or overwhelmed as you embark on the PLA process, but we are happy to bring clarity to this exciting opportunity. Below, we offer answers to several common questions about prior learning credits. 

How Are Credits for Prior Learning Applied? 

College faculty provide criteria for specific academic areas, revealing which concepts students will need to have mastered to earn equivalent credits. Next, students submit portfolios and documentation revealing potentially relevant experiences. These are compared and contrasted against faculty-submitted criteria, with credits awarded when experiences match expected course outcomes. 

Is There a Limit to the Amount of Credit I Can Earn Through Prior Learning Assessment? 

Many students apply dozens of prior learning credits toward their degrees, but at least 30 credits must be earned through college coursework. As such, a maximum of 90 credits can be secured through the PLA process. 

Can I Receive Credit for Prior Learning If I Didn’t Attend College Before? 

Credits for prior learning may be available to students who have not already attended college. For example, college applicants may use CLEP credits to satisfy select course requirements. Similarly, those with a military background may lack college-specific experience, but their completed military courses help them qualify for credits. 

Make the Most of Credits for Prior Learning 

At Champlain College Online, we strongly believe in the value of life experience as a vehicle for college-level learning. We are here to support you as you embark on a new and exciting educational journey. Take a closer look at our prior learning credit policies and discover how you can secure college credit for life experience.

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