Financial assistance and prior learning assessment

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If you need to take a course to earn credit toward your degree, financial aid is usually available for this.

But if you’ve already learned the material on your own — through work, independent study, or whatever — and just need to pass a test to earn those same credits, there’s no no financial assistance to pay for the test.

There’s something wrong with that.

Students who come to college with skills they learned elsewhere earn higher rates when they receive credit for what they can prove they already know. It makes sense: Allowing them to skip classes they don’t need saves them time and money, reducing life’s opportunities to keep them from completing their education. It also saves everyone the frustration of pushing students into courses they already master. Many of us have heard the stories of students who arrived fluent in, say, Spanish, but failed Spanish 101. The culprit in these cases is usually a combination of boredom and frustration. The student does not see the point of an overly simplistic course and stops attending, which leads to failure. PLA allows students to avoid this kind of frustration.

Prior learning assessment (also sometimes referred to as learning credit) comes in a variety of forms. Standardized tests like CLEP or DANTES are available in some popular general education areas; in these cases, simply being able to cover the cost of the examination would make a difference. In other cases, something like portfolio valuation is more common. CAEL does this on a large scale, although at considerable cost (usually to the student) in time and money. Local departmental exams or portfolio assessments must be covered either by institutional operating budgets or by charging student fees that financial aid will not cover.

Conceptually, ABS is similar to competency-based education. The operational difference is that the PLA is usually assessed at enrollment, where the CBE occurs in a structured manner at enrollment. But the idea behind PLA is similar to that behind CBE: in both cases, credit is given based on the results, rather than the time spent getting the results. If it takes one student three weeks to learn how to make a business plan and another student takes eight weeks, so be it; as long as they can produce a satisfying one, they can move on.

The big danger with CBE is that students get lost; the traditional semester calendar provides a structure that can help make the path to a degree clear. Institutions are experimenting to find the optimal combination of guidance and autonomy to enable the greatest number of students to succeed. But doing this on a large scale is prohibitively expensive for most places until students can get financial aid to do it.

From a pragmatic political point of view, I might consider it easier to start with the PLA. What if, for example, Pell grants could cover CLEP test fees? What if portfolio valuation could be guaranteed, at least to a degree that institutions could afford to do it more regularly? I don’t think the sky would fall; if anything, I suspect we’d find it both easier and more rewarding than we usually think. And starting there, where the costs would be relatively modest, could provide lessons to apply to the more ambitious case of entire CBE programs.

Institutionally, a similar dynamic would continue. Colleges that could afford to scale up APA would develop portfolio assessment protocols and standards that could then be applied to developing CBE programs. They would also learn how to administer the newly available financial aid in a logical way. Over time, the transfer institutions would have to adapt, which could only help.

The Federal Department of Education has allowed some trial sites to go ahead, but to really make a difference we would need to see help become available nationwide. Many colleges won’t (or can’t afford) to make a significant move towards APA unless and until they are assured that the money will be there to pay for it.

PLA would be a good starting point.


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