How Penn State compares to other 4-year publics in prior learning assessment

Sean Yoder
November 17, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new national study shows that adult learners who come into a college or university with prior learning credits not only tend to stay enrolled longer, but also have a stronger chance of completing a college degree. At Penn State, adult learners on average proved more successful than their peers at other four-year, public higher education institutions.

Penn State was one of the participants in the study of 72 universities and their prior learning assessment efforts, conducted by the Council for Adults and Experiential Learning and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Prior learning assessment (PLA) refers to college credits earned by means other than courses completed at a college or university. This includes national exams such as CLEP and DSST, along with experience in the workforce and military that a student brings to their formal collegiate education. Typically PLA also includes Advanced Placement (AP) credits, though for the purposes of this study AP was excluded from the data.

“The No. 1 thing we can do to help more students take advantage of PLA (Prior Learning Assessment) is to simplify the process.” 

— Michele Rice, director of the Office of Prior Learning Assessment at Penn State

Much of the study’s data came from a subset of PLA that focuses on credits earned from the military. Basic training is one of the most popular forms of prior learning, for example, but colleges and universities are starting to take a greater interest in translating more specialty training in the military into direct-equivalent credits.

In June, Penn State’s Office of Prior Learning Assessment announced that active military and veterans could now use the University’s new Transfer Credit Tool to see if any of their training or experience translates into Penn State credits. Numerous faculty teams and staff in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions reviewed the American Council on Education’s analyses of about 2,500 training experiences to develop the new tool and add the military experiences

Though the review of military-related credits was too recent to see any effects borne out in the national study, Penn State scored well compared to other public, four-year institutions in many categories for students matriculating from 2011 to 2018.

Of the data taken from 558 adult learners at Penn State, Penn Staters had a higher average number of PLA credits when starting with the university with 21.2, compared to 19.9 at public, four-year institutions. Adult learners proved, on average, more successful at completing their degree if they had PLA credits. A total of 74% of adult learners with PLA finished their degrees at Penn State, compared to 48% with no PLA. At four-year publics, 41% of adult learners with PLA finished their degrees and only 31% without PLA finished their degrees. Penn State trailed in one category by one percentage point (13% and 14%) compared to four-year publics: PLA take-up rate for adult learners, which is the percentage of students who come with some form of PLA.

Michele Rice, director of the Office of Prior Learning Assessment at Penn State, said “Recognition of our students’ learning outside the classroom advances Penn State's efforts to make our degrees accessible and affordable. These results demonstrate that our efforts make a difference, and we will continue to innovate to improve these outcomes.” 

Rice hopes to streamline the processes for reviewing and awarding PLA. PLA affects the work done at a number of Penn State offices: the Bursar, Admissions, Registrar, all in addition to the various academic colleges.

“The No. 1 thing we can do to help more students take advantage of PLA is to simplify the process,” she said.

Rice also hopes to expand the use of portfolio for credit at Penn State, where students document college-level learning from noncollege experience such as internship activities and learning on the job. Portfolios are course-specific and at $390 cost significantly less than course credits. Penn State also offers an online portfolio course to help prepare portfolios which may also count as a writing across the curriculum requirement for certain majors.

“We’re going to see a national trend of colleges and universities expanding their use of prior learning, especially as we seek to make education more equitable and accessible to adult learners and traditionally underrepresented groups,” Rice said.

The Office of Prior Learning Assessment is part of the Penn State Office of Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at

Last Updated November 23, 2020