One simple trick for saving time and money in college

Did you know there’s a way to earn college credit for work your student has already accomplished—saving both time and money, and potentially putting your student on an expedited graduation schedule for college?

If that sounds interesting, let me introduce you to the concept of prior learning assessment (or PLA). If you aren’t already aware, PLA is when a college or university recognizes a student’s past work or volunteer experience and grants college credit accordingly. It’s a concept catching steam nationally as more institutions recognize prior learning. In one survey, 92 percent of campuses awarded PLA academic credit.

Typically, PLA is useful for adult learners returning to school after a few years in the workplace. Normally, that means PLA isn’t a good fit for typical college students in their late teens and early twenties. But here’s the good news—as a homeschool family, your student probably has plenty of past experiences in jobs, volunteer activities, or other extracurricular pursuits to draw from.

That was definitely the case for me. During my senior year of college at Thomas Edison State University, I used PLA for five core courses in my major (journalism). I had prior experience working as a research associate at a nonprofit and as an editorial intern at a newspaper in my late teens. Those 15 credit hours saved me an additional semester of time. As a result, I graduated six months earlier than expected.

Even better, because my PLA credits were granted on a flat-free basis far below the average cost of tuition, I ended up saving hundreds of dollars in the end.

Are you interested in learning how PLA could benefit your student? Read on!

How PLA works

Here are a handful of the most common ways a student gains PLA-worthy experience:

  • Past jobs
  • Volunteer service
  • Community and religious involvement
  • The military
  • Independent work, artistic pursuits, or hobbies
  • Non-credit college courses

Although there are multiple ways to get PLA credit—including taking exams similar to CLEP for college credit—the approach we’re focusing on in this blog post is portfolio review. This is when you work with a college to assemble proof—a “portfolio”—of a student’s past experiences. There are several steps to actually get credit:

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  • Gather your proof of prior work, volunteering, or overall mastery-level experience in a course’s topics
  • Write a narrative and produce a portfolio proving your mastery
  • Submit it to the college

Your college or university then either approves the credits or denies them based on the materials you sent.

Here are some tips for ensuring a prior learning portfolio works for you:

1. Make sure your student’s college of choice offers PLA

Whether your institution offers PLA credit can be a big issue depending on how much prior experience your student has. Even if your college accepts PLA credits, continue digging. Some schools only accept PLA for specific credits—such as electives or general education requirements—and not for degree-specific courses.

Additionally, your school might cap the amount of PLA credits that your student can apply toward a degree, so double check before making plans.

2. Have the relevant experience

This one goes without saying, but it’s still worth emphasizing. While PLA is relatively simple, it’s not always easy. You need to ensure that your student has relevant experience to demonstrate mastery of each course’s learning outcomes where you’re applying for credit. If in doubt, an academic advisor at your college should be able to give you a good idea of the likelihood of success.

3. Block out time to build portfolios

In many cases, colleges will assign a teacher to work with your student for a specified amount of time to build portfolios. In addition to copies of materials that prove past experience, schools might require students to write a narrative describing how they gained the experience. Common types of supporting documentation include:

  • Published articles
  • Job descriptions
  • Volunteer work history
  • A record of military training
  • Credentials: Licenses, certificates, awards, etc.

Click here to learn the step-by-step instructions for how Thomas Edison State University handles PLA.

4. Consider how PLA impacts grade point average

This one could be a positive or a negative, depending on how your student performs in other college coursework. PLA credits are granted on a pass-fail basis, meaning your student’s grade point average isn’t impacted. If your student already has a high GPA in college, this can be a great way to maintain that level. But if improvements are needed to the GPA, regular coursework could be worth the effort.

Wrapping Up

There’s a lot more to learn about PLA, so we encourage you to do some research on your own and discover whether it’s a good fit for your student. Good luck!


Content marketer, author, and homeschool graduate. Co-founder of Transcript Maker, the high school transcript app.

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