BALTIMORE, MD. — What should your institution charge for prior learning assessment? The answer depends on factors including what you offer and where you offer it, said Becky Klein-Collins, associate vice president for research and policy for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

CAEL released results of a national survey on PLA. Klein-Collins discussed the findings in PLA Is Your Business: Pricing and Other Considerations for the PLA Business Model at a session at CAEL’s annual international conference.

Co-presenters were Donna Younger, CAEL’s vice president for higher education; Chari Leader Kelley, senior fellow and SIG speaker at CAEL; Nan Travers, director of collegewide academic review at the State University of New York Empire State College; and Vashti Ma’at, academic review coordinator at Empire.

The researchers defined PLA as “the process for evaluating knowledge and skills to award college credit for them.” The knowledge and skills evaluated could come from on-the-job training, independent study, military and volunteer service, training courses and/or certificates, and work experience.

And the evaluation can take a number of forms, including standardized tests, industry-recognized certificates, challenge exams, student portfolios, and consideration of noncollege training.

Value proposition drives pricing

When researchers first looked at the PLA pricing data from 89 institutions, it appeared that the data was completely scattered in terms of the business model and the pricing, Travers said. But then they realized that the consideration of the value proposition was the driving factor behind what institutions charge. Elements of the value proposition include:

  • Validation and empowerment. Research shows that PLA helps students validate who they are. The student’s sense that she is capable of being a good student empowers her.
  • Student motivation. Adult students with PLA credit are 2.5 times more likely to persist to graduation than adult students without PLA credit. It’s especially helpful for Hispanic students. For them, PLA raises the chance they will earn a bachelor’s degree from 6 percent to 47 percent.
  • Recruitment. PLA enables students to reduce costs and complete programs more quickly, and students are attracted to it. Institutions that share information about PLA during recruitment yield good results.
  • Retention. Students who feel connected are more likely to persist and graduate, Travers said. Being recognized for what they know through PLA increases their feeling of connection to the institution. And students with PLA credit typically take about 10 more credits than those without PLA credit, she said. Even if a PLA program costs the institution money, or if the institution just breaks even on it, the institution comes out ahead by offering it once recruitment and retention are factored in, Travers said.

The chart below shows why institutions offer PLA:

The value proposition can drive the design of the PLA program, Younger said. General characteristics of a good PLA program include:

  • Provides a range of options. Students come with varying experiences that can be evaluated using different methods.
  • Transparent. All stakeholders should know policies and procedures.
  • Affordable. Affordable doesn’t mean cheap. But it does mean that students can access the program and the institution can sustain it.
  • Offers student support. Students need to be able to get through the process.
  • Rigorous. The program must be delivered with integrity.

According to Younger, an effective PLA program incorporates the following six elements:

  1. Policies and procedures. Issues addressed by policy include:
    • Purpose.
    • Definition.
    • Rationale.
    • Eligibility.
    • Credit limits.
    • Assessment methods.
    • Transfer and articulation.
    • Fees.
    • Appeals.
  2. Academic criteria. Evaluation for PLA should be based on course learning outcomes and/or other criteria that drive assessment in courses. The evaluation methods should connect with the criteria.
  3. Faculty assessors. They are subject matter experts. Most often, they are discussed with regard to portfolios, but they should also play roles including vetting standardized tests and working with the registrar to consider American Council on Education recommendations.
  4. Student support. This starts when students enter the institution and receive information about PLA and how it might apply to them. Students should not hear about PLA from rumors. Support includes advising, screening and help with portfolio development.
  5. Infrastructure. The PLA process should include a coordinated set of steps, and roles should be clearly delineated.
  6. Oversight and research. Officials need to keep an eye not just on the operations, but also on the program’s impact on student empowerment, development and completion and its impact on the institution. They need to focus on assuring quality and upholding CAEL standards.

Consider approaches to PLA pricing

In its survey of 89 institutions and in-depth interviews with 11 of them, researchers identified three approaches to charging for PLA:

  1. Cover all costs.
  2. Price to sell.
  3. Look to the market to see what others are doing.

Institutions might charge fees for assessment, administration, transcript or training review, transcription, and courses/workshops.

According to Ma’at, key points the research revealed about fees include:

  • Standardized exams. The testing organizations (e.g., College Board, Prometric) charge fees. In addition, among institutions surveyed, 69 percent charge fees for testing, administration and transcription of CLEP and DSST tests. More than half charged only for testing and administration. The median administration fee was $25–$30.
  • Departmental challenge exams. Of institutions surveyed, 63 percent charged only an administration fee, and 23 percent charged no fees. The median administration fee was $100.
  • Portfolio assessment. Fees ranged from $200 to $2,000 per course. The median fee was $720.
  • Credit for military training and occupations. Among respondents, 90 percent did not charge students anything for evaluating this experience.
  • Noncollege training. Among respondents, 72 percent did not charge a fee.