PLA with a Purpose




Through rigorous evaluation, PLA measures student learning that has occurred outside the college classroom to determine whether it is appropriate for college credit. It, then, applies an equivalent number of college credits to the learning. Credits earned through PLA are connected to learning outcomes, not measures of seat time. PLA is sometimes called experiential learning or credit for prior learning (CPL).

PLA does not award credit for “life experience.” Rather, it awards credit for college-level learning (knowledge, skills, and competencies) that students have obtained as a result of their prior learning experiences.

PLA is not a method of evaluation but, instead, a blanket-term for a number of methods. Examples of PLA methods are:

  • Individualized portfolio-based assessments
  • Standardized exams, such as College Level Examination Program (CLEP), Advanced Placement (AP) Examination Program, Excelsior College Exams, DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST), and International Baccalaureate (IB)
  • Published credit recommendation guides, such as the evaluation of military training and service and industrial and corporate training produced by the American Council on Education (ACE)
  • Program evaluations of noncredit instruction done by individual colleges and universities
  • Customized exams created by individual colleges and universities
  • Evaluation of apprenticeship training (in collaboration with trade associations)

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has developed Ten Standards for Assessing Learning. To view them in detail, see


Research on PLA

PLAIn 2010, CAEL conducted a study that examined the academic records of more than 62,000 students from forty-eight colleges and universities.2  The data indicated that students with PLA credit “had better academic outcomes, particularly in terms of graduation rates and persistence, than other adult students.”  The research highlights are as follows: 
Increased motivation to graduate
  • 56% of PLA students earned a postsecondary degree within seven years, compared to only 21% of non-PLA students. 
  • PLA students had higher graduation rates than non-PLA students regardless of institutional size, level (2- or 4-year), or type (private for-profit, non-profit or public); individual student academic ability or GPA; age, gender, or race/ethnicity; and need-based financial assistance

Increased persistence in a degree program

  • 56% of PLA students who did not earn a degree within seven years accumulated 80% or more of the credits needed for the degree.  Only 22% of non-PLA students who did not earn a degree within seven years made similar progress.
Lessened time-to-degree
  • PLA students who earned a bachelor’s degree saved an average of 3–10 months when compared with non-PLA students who earned a bachelor’s degree. PLA students earning an associate’s degree saved an average of 2–5 months. 
Increased institutional course credit earned
  • PLA students (both degree and non-degree earners) completed an average of 54 credits in institutional coursework, compared to 44 credits completed by non-PLA students.
Average number of PLA credits earned
  • The average number of PLA credits earned by a subgroup of 4,905 students in the sample was 17.6.
Cost savings
  • Students who earned 15 PLA credits saved from $1,600-$6,000 on tuition costs.
From July 2003 to June 2004, The College Board conducted a survey of students earning a score of 50 or higher on one or more of the 35 CLEP examination titles.3 The research showed that CLEP:
Positively affected ability to pay for college
  • 70% of CLEP test-takers said their CLEP credits made a difference in their ability to finance tuition and other fees.
Positively assisted in degree completion
  • 91% of CLEP test-takers said CLEP made a difference in helping them to complete their degrees.
In 2012, ACE et al. completed their second assessment of the current state of programs and services for veterans and service members on campuses across the nation.4 The data, based on survey results from 690 institutions, included information about the awarding of PLA credit for military members.
  • 83% of the colleges and universities with programs and services for veterans and military personnel awarded evaluated credit for military training;
  • 63% awarded evaluated credit for military occupational experience.