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Credit for prior learning saves time and money for adult students

Credit for prior learning, sometimes called experiential learning, allows students to challenge courses because of their knowledge from past work, life or military experiences. The university evaluates student knowledge in a number of ways, including standardized tests and the completion of a prior learning portfolio.

In October 2020, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning released The PLA Boost, a 72-institution targeted study of prior learning assessment and adult student outcomes. The 11% of adult students who earned credit for prior learning received an average of 11.7 credits –  nearly a semester. Time savings for students ranged from nine to 14 months.

All of a sudden, a door opens

Not only can credit for prior learning save money and time, data also indicates it may increase the likelihood that students graduate. According to The PLA Boost, adult learners nationally have a 27% completion rate. That percentage rises to 49% for those who take advantage of credit for prior learning opportunities.

Credit for prior learning also inspires students to pursue additional academic opportunities.

“I often see people who didn’t finish a college degree take one of these online degree pathways and figure out how to get some credit for prior learning and sometimes they don’t stop with just a bachelor’s degree,” said Jeremy Graves, adjunct faculty and interim assistant director for the Center for Professional Development. “All of a sudden, it opens the door for them.”

The data backs Graves’ testimony. According to The PLA Boost, adult students who receive credit for prior learning take, on average, 17.6 more credits than those who do not receive credit for prior learning. Additional course credits and increased degree completion rates benefit the university.

The value of diverse experience

Rebecca Morgan, strategic partnerships manager for Adult and Organizational Outreach with Extended Studies, believes it’s important for adult learners to have opportunities to demonstrate prior knowledge. A non-traditional student who’s owned a business for 20 years, for example, can be frustrated when they’re required to take an entry-level business course. Not only does credit for prior learning recognize the skills they already have, it opens seats in those courses for the students who are still developing those skills.

Personal expertise can also help students earn credits. Morgan has worked with students whose passion for a subject allows them to challenge a course. One example was a student who studied history extensively in their free time. From their years of independent study, the student could demonstrate the knowledge required to test out of a history elective.

Foreign language can also be an overlooked opportunity for multilingual students.

“We’ve had students who are native Spanish speakers but don’t even think about testing out of Spanish courses,” Morgan explained. “Spanish satisfies a foundational credit requirement and can help those students choose a certificate or a minor in foreign language.”

Credit for language courses may be part of the reason why, according to The PLA Boost, credit for prior learning boosts undergraduate completion rates for Latinx adults by 24%.

Student success at Boise State

During the fall 2020 semester, the Bachelor of Arts in Multidisciplinary Studies and Bachelor of Applied Science programs had 31 students challenge courses. To prepare to challenge courses, these students enrolled in MDS 301 a one-credit seminar taught by Baker Lawley, a clinical instructor for experiential learning in the MDS and BAS programs. The seminar guides students through applying for credit, a process that involves developing a portfolio demonstrating a student’s acquired knowledge and identifying how it relates to college-level learning.

Lawley has seen a number of successful learning portfolios. He recalled one, that of a former police investigator. “The student successfully challenged his courses in teamwork and ethics because he had ongoing training in those subjects for decades,” said Lawley.

The 31 students in Lawley’s class challenged a total of 78 courses. Seventy-one were successful. These students saved approximately $74,550 in tuition costs.

Learn more about credit for prior learning at Boise State:

– Story by Adam Thompson and Erin Taylor for Boise State Extended Studies