Credit for Prior Learning and Non-Traditional Students

Written By: Alex Liethen

Many students on community college campuses are considered non-traditional students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “traditional enrollment in post-secondary education is defined as enrolling immediately after high school and attending full time” while a non-traditional student is anyone who falls outside this demographic; “therefore, students who delayed enrollment in post-secondary education by a year or more after high school or who attended part time were considered nontraditional.” In addition to having at least a year between high school and secondary education, the NCES consider people in a number of different scenarios as non-traditional students. Working while attending school, single parents and/or people who have others dependent on them (caring for an elderly parent, for example), students who are financially independent (regardless of age) and GED recipients are all considered non-traditional students.pla-1

Being a non-traditional student myself, I know first-hand that people in our position face certain challenges that traditional students don’t necessarily face. We also have some potential advantages and opportunities that traditional students don’t. The first of these opportunities that I would like to highlight, and make my fellow students aware of, is a program titled Credit for Prior Learning.

The Colorado Community College System (CCCS), as well as Front Range Community College (FRCC), have programs designed to acknowledge students’ prior learning, whether from the classroom or the workplace, and award them college level credit where applicable. This program is different from just testing out of a certain level of math or English, for example, through taking Accuplacer or other placement tests. In that scenario, a student can test out of MAT-166 (Pre-Calculus) and begin taking calculus right away, saving them both time and money as they aren’t required to take a class that they have already passed, even if it was years (or decades) prior.

Often, these placement tests are only for English and math, and certain sciences such as biology or chemistry. What if you were an accountant and are looking at having to take Economics 101 or you just left the military where you were in a leadership position, speaking in front of large groups of people and see that you are required to take a public speaking course? These are examples of scenarios that may be perfect for nontraditional students to take advantage of their nontraditional status.

According to FRCC’s website, prior Learning is a non-college or experience-based learning that has been attained outside the sponsorship of accredited postsecondary education institutions. Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) Credit includes learning acquired from work and life experiences; community and volunteer extension courses; individual study and reading; civic, community and volunteer work; and participation in informal courses and in-service training sponsored by associations, business, government, and industry. PLA Credit is not awarded for EXPERIENCE, but for college-level LEARNING that entails knowledge, skills, and competencies that students have obtained as a result of their prior learning experience. What sets PLAs apart from placement tests is that instead of only testing out of a certain level of a subject, the student is actually awarded credits that can be applied to a degree or certificate.

There are a few different ways that students can attempt to get college credit for prior learning. These include:

  1. Standardized Tests, including College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB),
  2. Institutional Examinations, which are examines that are equivalent to a final and can be administered orally, written or through demonstration and are administered by an area dean or expert,
  3. Published Guides, which focus on military experience and corporate or work-related trainings and certifications and
  4. Portfolio Assessment, Portfolio requirements and assessment determined by college faculty for work or life experiences that meet the following criteria:
    1. The learning is demonstrable
    2. Include both theoretical and applied components
    3. Are at the college level, and
    4. Are equivalent to a specific college course or courses in the student’s program of study

I will focus on pathways number 1 (CLEP Testing) and 4 (Portfolio Assessment) for this article as they are the two paths that I am most familiar with through having utilized them. CLEP Testing, as well as other similar standardized tests, allow students to demonstrate competence in a subject through a test. There are 33 different courses that offer a CLEP test to demonstrate proficiency. The courses fall primarily in History and Social Science, Composition and Literature, Science and Math (only certain levels), a few Business course and World Languages (Spanish, French and German only). Taking a CLEP test can be a great way for nontraditional students to save both time and money. A CLEP test costs only $80, is free for active duty military personnel, and can allow a student to be awarded anywhere from 1-4 credits, potentially saving $100’s and weeks or months of time in a classroom. There are review books that have been created for many of the CLEP tests to help students prepare for the test. I am currently using the CLEP review for Spanish as I hope to test out of both Spanish I and II because I took years of Spanish in high school (but that was over a decade ago!) and have travelled through Central America.

Student juggling ILLUS.jpg
Juggling the demands of a non-traditional student is demanding; lesson the load where you can! Illustration by: Chris Ware

For courses that don’t have a CLEP test or similar standardized test available, another way that a nontraditional student can demonstrate skills they have learned outside the classroom is through the creation of a Portfolio that documents the skills learned and why those experiences should be awarded college credit. It is a good idea to talk to your professors or an Academic Advisor about your options when it comes to PLA portfolios. I had a professor inform me of this option last year. Without his input and guidance, I would not have known this was an option. I was awarded 4 credits for a Landscape Construction course that FRCC offers because I was able to document skills I had learned while in the workforce that demonstrated I had learned, at a college level, the skills that the course aims to impart on students.

The portfolio included letters of recommendation, my resume, documentation of learning (for my portfolio this included many photos of the construction but this documentation may look very different depending on the course) and a write-up of what the class aims to teach (obtained from the course syllabus and objectives, found in the college catalogue) and where in my experience I learned those skills or lessons. I also needed to have a faculty review and recommend my Portfolio. There is a fee associated with submitting the Portfolio ($125 when I submitted mine), which is much less than the cost of 3-5 credits, the number typically awarded. Along with CLEP testing, there is the risk that the credits won’t be awarded due to low test scores or a portfolio that doesn’t demonstrate college level learning, in which case the student is out the money.

According to FRCC’s website, there are four standards for prior learning assessment, regardless of the method chosen to attempt to receive the credit. These standards are:

  1. Academic credit will only be awarded for those courses directly applicable to curriculum requirements at FRCC and to the student’s declared certificate or degree program listed in the college’s catalog.
  2. A student may use PLA to fulfill all degree/certificate graduation requirements except for the mandatory 25% residency requirement.
  3. If pursuing a transfer degree (A.A., A.S., or A.G.S. Articulated degree program), PLA will only be granted for the purpose of satisfying graduation requirements. These credits might not transfer to colleges outside of CCCS. Contact the college to which you intend to transfer to determine their PLA requirements.
  4. All work assessed for PLA must meet or exceed “C” level work. Minimum cut-off scores on standardized tests are also established to meet the “C” grade level.

Of these four standards, the one that I feel students should be most aware of is the transferability of PLA credits to other institutions. While FRCC will award credit for prior learning, a traditional 4-year university may not recognize the PLA credits. Even if you are awarded credit for a Guaranteed Transfer (GT) course, the school you are transferring to may not accept the credits, or may force you to resubmit or retest to receive the credits. If you intend to transfer to another school after FRCC, it is highly advisable to check with the next school to see if Prior Learning credits will be accepted there.

There are many potential advantages for nontraditional students, especially for those of us on the older side of student demographics and those who have spent time in the military or the workforce. I hope to continue to highlight some of these options because for me, the biggest barrier to taking advantage of my nontraditional status was knowing what programs exist, how they may benefit me and how I can utilize them. In addition to the links to FRCC’s website in the article, another great resource for PLA credits is the CCCS website (Colorado Community College System).

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