What is a PLA? And Why Does It Help?

By Dr. Christiane Warren

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) which awards college credits for work/military/life experience learning is a proven avenue to support adult learners, increase enrollment, retention, and graduation, and offer greater career stability. Short-term credentials and badges can also provide short-term success and possibly serve as an entry point for additional training. Community colleges would be the most ideally situated institutions to fully implement these strategies. Under President Obama, a taskforce existed to do just that, by connecting ACE with selected community colleges and Military education. In New Jersey, Thomas Edison State University (TESU) offers a state-wide network, the NJ PLAN, for PLA credits in collaboration with NJ colleges. The process for community colleges to join is not complicated and Gov. Christie in a comprehensive report on NJ Higher Education in 2016 advocated for increased emphasis on PLA and non-traditional learners. Why then has not every community college joined?

In New Jersey alone, a number of community colleges have PLA policies on file that are either not fully implemented or so narrowly defined, leading to students being generally unaware of their existence or getting lost in the bureaucratic labyrinth required for claiming PLA credits. The data is clear:

PLA credits reduce drop-out rates, increase enrollment and retention, and improve graduation rates, along with shortening completion time frames. And contrary to common objections, PLA credit policies do not reduce revenue, rather their existence increases revenue. Most students obtain 3-9 credits through PLA, some more towards 9-15 credits. Only a small group obtain the maximum number of PLA credits available. Yet, despite these relatively small numbers of actual credits earned through PLA, the indirect benefit to both the student and the institution is significant.

Students see their learning and expertise as being valued by their college. They also appreciate the savings in both time and money. Thus, they feel motivated to study and develop a strong sense of loyalty to the institution.

Colleges who award PLA credits in a comprehensive, up-front and significant manner, acquire dedicated students who will be successful and serve as alumni as well as promote the institution among their social and professional networks. The marketing campaigns that can easily be structured around PLA further serve to increase enrollment.

Given all of these positives, one has to ask why not more community colleges adopt strong PLA processes. In NJ, with its high percentage of diverse students, professional, military and 1st generation college students, it borders on fiscal and pedagogical negligence for any community college not to join the NJ PLAN.

Having led a campus-wide, inter-departmental taskforce at an urban community college in Northern NJ in 2015/16 which resulted in the successful adoption of a shared governance resolution to be signed into effect by the College President, I am closely familiar with the challenges and solutions institutions face when addressing PLA. Our efforts spanned over 18 months, our team included several division deans, faculty, registrar, bursar, academic affairs, and veterans’ affairs. We traversed through all of the internal committees and were victorious in getting the governance resolution approved to join the NJ PLAN in March 2017. To date, the policy has not been enacted. In the face of the current crises, this seems inexplicable.

This is not the only example. At other colleges, CBE as well as PLA credits are so narrowly defined and key personnel who are tasked with their review are largely unaware of the procedures. One small community college in Southern NJ, spearheaded the program years ago, but only applies it to 1 degree in Technical Studies.

PLA is not new. Four-year institutions have developed significant structures for their acceptance, such as Fairleigh Dickinson University/Petrocelli Campus, Saint Peter’s University/Professional Studies, William Paterson University and of course Thomas Edison State University.

One community college stands out as an innovative leader: Warren County Community College/VIPER Program. WCCC pioneered a program directed specifically towards veterans and active-duty military students, who can earn PLA credits for their military expertise and transfer directly to TESU.

One has to ask then, what are the reasons for the inertia, the overall lack of enthusiasm towards PLA?

It can be found in outdated governance structures and the intrenchment of senior tenured faculty who came to their careers in the 1990’s and continue to strive for community colleges to serve primarily as liberal arts transfer institutions, although the full-time graduation rates tend to hover between 11- 17 %. Their approach to higher education is faculty-centered and expects students to approach their education as an exercise in intellectual discovery. While such notions are admirable, they do not accurately reflect the majority of today’s community college students.

Other aspects are lack of understanding on the complex nature of the PLA policy implementation by leadership who see only the short-term loss of tuition revenue but fail to see the long-term benefits.

With the end of the Obama era grant and its incumbent advocacy for PLA, including the ACE project, institutions are often without external support and unless an internal advocate persists, quickly have lost focus on this issue.

Yet, it is time to refocus our efforts and implement PLA processes across the board in NJ. They fall within the greater framework of the Guided Pathways initiative and the completion agenda “15 to Finish.” We owe it to our students and also to our beloved community colleges which are currently buckling under steeply declining enrollment numbers and ever-more volatile calls from legislators and the public to create effective and affordable new pathways to tangible employment opportunities.

More About the Author

Guest author, Dr. Christiane Warren, Senior Consultant atAnna J Cooper Education AdvocacyRecognized for producing growth and cultivating success in the career and education space, Dr. Warren has served as tenured faculty, department chair and academic dean for entire divisions and in the Academic Affairs office at both 2-and-4 year institutions in NJ and NY. Read more about Dr. Warren here.