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Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)

You can get credit for what you know at many US Regionally Accredited Colleges with a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) also known as an Assessment of Prior Learning (APL) Portfolio. These schools believe that there is no need to sit in a classroom to get credit when you already know this work.

The PLA portfolio is used to demonstrate college level knowledge obtained outside the classroom. Credit is never awarded for work or any sort of life experience. Credit is only awarded for learning that occurs in that experience. You will receive guidance and help along the way. Colleges that offer a PLA program have counselors who work directly with the students and guide them throughout the entire process.

One key word in this is DEMONSTRATES. It does not mean that you simply state that you know something. It does not mean you have worked in an office, or have life experience. It means that you can SHOW that you have the knowledge. You get credit for the knowledge but not for the experience. You do not get credit for having an experience. You get credit for the knowledge you attained from the experience. Perhaps you leaned how to play the guitar from watching a set of video tapes. You must demonstrate that you can play the music, not prove that you listened to the tapes. You must understand this difference.

Another key word is COLLEGE LEVEL. The knowledge you gain must be equal to a college level course. This is accomplished by finding a course that is given at any two or four year regionally accredited college in the United States that you believe represents the knowledge that you have.

To better understand what is and what is not college level knowledge let’s look at two employees of the same direct mail company who decided to earn a degree using the PLA process. They decided to do the PLA process together since they worked in the same office and they decided it would be helpful to work together. The first woman answered the phones, took orders and entered the orders in a log. The second woman did the same thing at first but expressed a desire to learn all of the jobs in the office. In addition to answering the phones and taking and entering orders, she learned how to order advertising space and negotiate better prices. She learned how to track the ads to see which ones were making a profit and which ones were not so that she would only renew the ads that were making a profit. She also trained others to answer the phone and taught them how to provide good customer service. She wrote a small training manual for the new employees. She helped the firm pick out new products for the catalog. She designed an Excel spread sheet to track how the new items sold vs. the standard items and taught everyone in the office how to read and use the spreadsheet.

The first woman did not earn any college credit for her work. She was very good at answering the phones and entering orders, but it simply was not college level knowledge. The second woman was able to get 12 credits for what she learned at her job. She successfully completed a portfolio in advertising, two customer service training courses and one course in using the excel spreadsheet.

It is important that you understand what college level knowledge is so that you can understand what you qualify for. If it is work that a high school student can come in and do during summer break it probably is not at a college level.

Let’s look at another employee who wants to get college credit for what he learned on the job. He was a sales clerk in a camera store. He can look at his job in different ways. He can see himself as a very pleasant person who is excellent at sales presentations and customer service. Looking over college catalogs he can see one or two classes in sales and customer service that he should be able to get college credit for. That would come to about 6 credits. He knows he cannot turn his clerical skills into college level knowledge.

What he is not thinking about is that he also has learned about camera models, lenses, different types of film and their properties. He should be able to get not only credits for college level sales and customer service but for introductory and intermediate courses in photography as well.

The more time you spend looking over your on the job or volunteer experiences the more courses you are likely to find that are equivalent to what you have learned.

The first thing that you must do is make a list of everything you have knowledge about that you believe is on a college level. For example, are you a great cook? Do you do fund-raising?

Do you play a musical instrument, or speak a foreign language? Do you travel?
Do you write poetry? Do you do computer programming, website design?
wiz? Do you sew? Do you travel? Do you speak a foreign language? Keep the list going on and on.

Here is a preliminary list that is intended to get you to start thinking:

  • CPR certification
  • Speaking a foreign language
  • Sewing
  • MSE certification
  • Military experience
  • Travel
  • Project management training
  • Typing
  • Shorthand
  • Training volunteers
  • Training coworkers
  • Computer Skills
  • Lesson Planning
  • Creating workshops
  • Parenting Education
  • Flying lessons
  • SCUBA diver courses
  • Bible Study
  • Adult Education courses
  • CPR Classes
  • Professional Certifications
  • Real Estate Courses
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Child Care
  • Volunteer work
  • Working in a play backstage
  • Coaching a sports team
  • Playing on a sports team
  • Sailing a boat
  • Reading extensively on any subject
  • Working with the elderly
  • Writing articles for publication
  • Work as a writer or editor
  • Audio video skills
  • Working for a law enforcement organization
  • Working for a political campaign
  • Dancing
  • Making pottery
  • Singing in a group
  • Sculpting
  • Photography skills
  • Art Therapy
  • Working at a museum
  • Working at a zooGardening
  • Working on a farm
  • Working at a farmers market
  • Working at a flea market
  • Living with people who are from a foreign country
  • Doing interior design
  • Working in a florist shop
  • Assisting a teacher as an aid or volunteer
  • Landscape designing
  • Working in a plant nursery
  • Starting a business of any kind
  • Owning and running a business
  • Living in another country
  • Cooking
  • Baking
  • Time management skills
  • Nature Study
  • Consulting
  • Web design
  • Stained glass skills
  • Communication skills
  • Feng Shui
  • Drumming
  • Message
  • Karate, Jui Jitsu
  • Shiatsu
  • Flower arranging
  • Metalsmithing
  • Acting skills
  • Home buying
  • Public Speaking
  • Getting divorced
  • Adopting a child
  • Assertiveness training
  • Personal development workshops
  • Going to theater
  • Knowledge of History
  • Conducting Walking Tours
  • Chair caning
  • Quilt Making
  • Movie going
  • TV watching
  • Auto repair
  • Construction work
  • Study skills
  • Electrical skills
  • Air Conditioning skills
  • Taking surveys
  • Research
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Teaching golf
  • Read music
  • Sing
  • Teaching anyone to do almost anything
  • Investing skills
  • Wine tasting
  • Negotiation skills
  • Catering
  • People skills
  • Marketing skills
  • Advertising knowledge
  • Outdoor Lighting skills
  • Restaurant management skills
  • Learning history or culture in a foreign country
  • Studying architecture while traveling
  • Studying wildlife while traveling
  • Working with any branch of the government
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Writing music
  • Listening to music extensively
  • FAA Academy & CMD training courses
  • Any interesting collections
  • Hobbies that make you a civil war “buff.”
  • Extrasensory perception
  • Extraterrestrial objects

All of the above can translate into a course somewhere in the US. That is the next step.

Once you have made a list of what you do, you need to find an actual course that is offered by any regionally accredited college in the US. It must be a specific course being offered by a specific college. You must state the name of the course and the name of the college that is offering it as well as a 2-3 line description of the course as it is written in the school catalog.

You therefore need course catalogs – either hard copies or electronic ones. You can find them in public libraries, school libraries and online.

Pick a stack of catalogs from regionally accredited two year colleges and four year colleges and start going through the section of each catalog that has course listings with two or three line course descriptions( these are generally available in full length catalogs, not in view books). Look for any course title which you think you have knowledge of. It does not matter what the subject is because these can qualify as your electives. Electives are “free course” other than the required courses or your major. If you have no idea what you have knowledge of, going through course catalogs will help you. You will see your talents in the course descriptions.

As an example we will look at Thomas Edison State College’s BA in Humanities. The requirements include 6 credits in written expression, 12 credits in the three broad liberal arts areas, including humanities, math and natural sciences, and social sciences, 18 credits in additional liberal arts of your choice, 33 credits in your major or specialization and 27 credits in free electives, for a total of 120 credits. In math and natural science you must include at one course in college level math and one in computer science. The 27 credits of free electives can be in things like playing a musical instrument, modern dance, swimming, ceramics, poetry – things you may do in your spare time – as long as you can find a course at any regionally accredited college in the country. You should have no trouble doing that.

When you find a course that reflects your knowledge make a write down or photocopy of the catalog page with brief description of the course – including course number and number of credits offered. Note the following information
– Name of school where the course is offered
– Year of catalog publication
– Page number
– The department that offers the course

As an example, let’s say you play a musical instrument.

Kent State University offers Folk guitar Class with 2 credits. Get the catalog and make a copy of the course description and make a portfolio submission, which essentially states that you want to show that you have the knowledge that is taught in the 2 credit course on Folk Guitar Class, (course number) offered at Kent Sate University. The receiving institutions will know what the course is all about because you are submitting a photocopy of the course description from the catalog of Kent State along with your submission. You can do that for any course based on your knowledge levels of a subject. Next you must show that you have a theoretical and practical knowledge of playing the guitar. You can do this by making a video recording of you playing you music and/or copies of sheet music that you have written as well as a narrative that shows you have a theoretical knowledge of playing the guitar. The key to the portfolio is the narrative.

Be careful not to choose any courses that you have already gotten credit for. You will not get duplicate credit just because two schools title their courses differently.

Do not neglect an area where you have expertise just because it’s not your field. Think outside the box. Look at your work experience and your hobbies to find where you can get credit.

It is important that you learn how to work the system correctly. For example – Word Processing is available at most colleges as a 3 credit class.. Because it does not have significant math component, word processing would qualify as a free elective, not to fill a required math class. Your portfolio would be turned down as a math class but accepted as an elective. School that accept prior learning portfolios usually have counselors that will work with you every step of the way with your portfolio.
When you are ready to submit your portfolio you will have to follow the specific rules of the college you are attending. They generally require a cover sheet that includes information about you, your degree program, course title and credits for which you are applying, a copy of the course description, the college the course is offered at, etc.

Next is your documentation. You would be supply any notes, information sheets, written products, etc., about the knowledge you have gained. For example if you attended a workshop you would need information about the workshop to document the contents of the workshop.

If you have written a computer program supply the program in a format that the evaluators can run. If you wrote a handbook or manual provide the manual. In addition you must provide some proof that you were the author of either the computer program or the manual. This is done by finding someone in the field who knows you and will attest to the fact that you are in fact the author.

In the case of music, especially if you both write and play music (often theory is not a part of those courses) ask for a live test. People have been known to meet with the evaluator, play music and walk away with 3, 6, 9 even 18 credits. Whenever possible request an oral test in a subject that you are very familiar with. If you know everything about the civil war, talk to your counselor about an oral test. Often you can run with a question in the direction that allows you to demonstrate your knowledge.

In order to demonstrate your knowledge (in addition to a narrative) you could have a letter sent in by someone who knows what you learned on your job, at your workshop etc. For example we talked about the man who worked in a camera shop and learned about cameras, lenses, and more. He could send a letter to his employer telling the employer that he is hoping to get college credit for what he knows about photography. The letter that you send will help determine the response you get back. For example if you ask your employer to write a letter stating that you have an excellent working knowledge of cameras, that is what he will say – that you have an excellent working knowledge of cameras and that does not demonstrate knowledge. If you ask your employer to write a letter describing his evaluation of your knowledge in the following areas – and then list the areas you will get a specific letter attesting to your knowledge in those specific areas. Your college advisor will help you with these letters.

Make use of your advisors. Talk to them often. Ask for help and guidance and follow what they tell you. Submit your portfolio work when and how they request it. They will make your journey much smoother.

Many schools sell a portfolio guide that you can learn from before you start. Charter Oak State College sells a “Portfolio Assessment Handbook” and video for under $20.00. It can be very helpful regardless of which college you ultimately enroll in. You can call the school at 860.832.3800 for details on how to order. You don’t necessarily need to buy a handbook because there are some good online tutorials that are fee. Read through them to become more comfortable with the process. Some include sample narratives. There are more links about portfolios in the MUST READ section at the end of this program. And remember that your advisor is there to work with you on your portfolio.

Thomas Edison State College

James Madison University

Saint Francis University has an excellent tutorial for the narratives

Schools that do not give credit for PLA portfolios (such as Excelsior) often allow you to transfer credit granted by colleges that do this. For example you can have your portfolio work accepted by schools like Charter Oak State College, Mountain State University, Thomas Edison State College, Governors State University, Athabasca University, University of Indianapolis and many many more. If you do not know where you will be getting your degree from call colleges that offer credit for PLA and talk to an advisor at each college. See which ones seem helpful. Look at the cost. There is no need to spend more money than you have to on assessment work.