We’re always learning on the job and throughout our careers. But what many people don’t know is that there is a way to take all that knowledge and turn it into a postsecondary education credit on the way to earning a college degree.
“Prior learning assessment, or PLA, is college credit that you can receive for what you have learned from your work and life experiences,” explains Beth Doyle, senior vice president of client success and operations, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).
“For more than 50 years, colleges and universities have used a range of different methods to award college credit for learning that takes place outside of the classroom—particularly learning from work, life, and military experiences,” according to a recent CAEL study conducted in partnership with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).
The study collected data from over 230,000 learners at 72 postsecondary institutions and found that the credit resource is underutilized.
“The biggest problem is only 10% of adults who go back to school (use) PLA. When you ask them why, they say they never knew it existed,” says Doyle. “It is sad. I don’t know the exact number in terms of lost credits, but it’s a lot.”
Doyle, herself, took advantage of PLA credits when she enrolled in college after working ten years in marketing and advertising.
Working fulltime, Doyle says, “I was able to finish in two-and-a-half years instead of eight years. That’s life-changing.”
One Student’s Journey
Using PLA credits is a great way to take a lifetime of work experiences and use them to your advantage as you pursue a college degree, cutting time and costs.
Alphur Willock of New York is better known as Slim. “It’s something that really stuck because I was always skinny. And you know, Slim just sounds way better than Skinny,” jokes Willock.
While attending community college, Willock worked as a security guard in the building that housed the company that later became Verizon. In 1994, he got a job in that very building answering directory assistance calls.
After five years, Willock became a telecommunications technical associate. The new position gave him the chance to go out into the field and interact with clients.
But he also wasn’t done pursuing his education or career goals. “My grandmother always said, ‘Education is the key to life,’” recalls Willock.
A company- and union-sponsored program allowed him to return to community college to get an associate degree in engineering. While attending school once a week, Verizon covered all of his educational costs.
Motivated to continue his education while married with five children, Willock was close to getting his bachelor’s degree from New York University when his world fell apart in 2011. His wife died shortly after the birth of their sixth child.
“When life hit me, I didn’t want to do nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” says Willock. “I can’t even put that type of feeling in a bottle to share with you. That was unbearable.”
Willock’s Learning Continues with the Help of PLA Credits
“The struggles of higher learning, that additional education is not easy, especially when you’re working and you have your family,” says Willock.
But a few years after his wife’s passing, Willock discovered another employer-supported program, this time at Pace University. Nancy Lynch Hale, DPS, is the executive director of Pace’s NACTEL program which provides advanced training to people already working in the field of telecommunications. The program is part of the Seidenberg School of CSIS.
Hale says Willock was a good candidate for PLA. “He had a mix of all kinds of [college] credits. And then he had his prior learning—some of the leadership that he had done. We worked at ensuring that he was entering our programs at the appropriate level, trying to maximize the credits that he had and the experiences.”
“He had some classic experiences that would be credit- bearing, but not relevant to the degree he was seeking. So, we designed our bachelor’s degree to be a completion degree, which gives us much more freedom to bring in credits that don’t apply, generally, to what you’re doing,” explains Hale.
Willock’s bachelor’s degree required 120 credits for completion. According to Hale, about 70 of his credits came from his previous postsecondary education and an additional 16 credits came from his work experience.
“The program that we’ve designed really works to support the adult learner. [Willock] is just the perfect example, because once he’s in the right place, he sees that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” adds Hale.
Willock now holds a bachelor’s degree in information and technology with a concentration on telecommunications. He is currently working towards a master’s degree with emphases on cybersecurity and digital forensics.
Hale notes that Willock has also earned badges at Pace. “Some of them are credit-bearing, but some of them he earned because he had this background that allowed him to earn a more advanced badge. It combined his experience. And showed Verizon he is a person who has passed this level and now has gone on to a more advanced level.”
Research Your PLA Options
Not all institutions that offer PLA credits assess the same way.
“Be a good hunter of programs that offer PLA. If you have a lot of work experience, you want to start asking those questions early on when you’re considering colleges,” advises CAEL’s Doyle.
“How many times do you have something that is right in your grasp, but you still can’t reach it? And then you have programs like this that make it attainable,” says Willock. “I hope I can be that vessel for other people to let them know that it’s there.”
The proud dad and, now, grandfather also says, “What I’m doing is rubbing off on my kids because I’m seeing how exceptional my kids are doing in school.”
“My mother always said, ‘All you gotta do is believe. You can be anything you want to be. You’ve got to believe in yourself.’ And I think that’s what this is all about.”