New Analysis Offers Insight About Why Underrepresented Adult Students Are Less Likely To Receive College Credit for Their Prior Learning

Report sheds light on multiple possible factors why Black and lower-income adult students have lower rates of credit receipt in credit for prior learning programs designed to save time and money in earning postsecondary credentials

INDIANAPOLIS – The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) have released a new report that examines equity issues inherent in the receipt of prior learning assessment credit (PLA), also called credit for prior learning (CPL).

In “Equity Paradoxes in The PLA Boost: Opportunity Unrealized for Some Students Despite the Potential for Improved Credit Completion,” researchers explore the team’s 2020 findings that while Black and lower-income adult students received strong boosts to credential completion from PLA/CPL credit, they were the least likely to receive such credit. PLA/CPL is a process for evaluating and awarding credit for learning acquired from non-college experiences such as work, military, travel, self-study, and community and volunteer service.

This new study builds on the previously released “The PLA Boost: Results from a 72-Institution Targeted Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes,” made possible by Lumina Foundation and Strada Education Network, and offers a more thorough look at the original findings related to equity. Three new findings emerged as part of a deeper analysis of the original dataset:

  • Adult Pell Grant recipients, particularly Black and Hispanic adult students, showed a greater-than-average credential completion boost from PLA/CPL credit-receipt.
  • Little to no disparity in PLA/CPL credit rates by race/ethnicity existed among students with a military history on record, for whom the primary type of PLA/CPL credit was from ACE military credit recommendations.
  • Non-military adult students, especially those who are Black, experienced the lowest PLA/CPL credit rate in this study.

Drawing on interviews with institutional PLA/CPL leaders, the report identified factors that could help explain these disparities, including fees charged for learning assessments, inadequate student outreach, insufficient institutional policies and processes, and lower levels of self-confidence among adult learners.

“Credit for prior learning is a proven way to increase student success, especially for adult learners who may not have a traditional pathway to a college degree,” said Demarée Michelau, president of WICHE. “These new takeaways offer important and urgent insights to consider when developing solutions that help reduce barriers and increase access for more students.”

The report provides actionable recommendations for postsecondary institutions to ensure PLA/CPL programs are available and accessible to all adult learners. These include developing financial supports for low-income students, improving communications to students about PLA/CPL, embedding PLA/CPL systemically in advising, providing assessments of learning that occurs in a wider range of occupations, and improving data collection and analysis to understand where equity gaps exist.

“It’s so important for institutions to ensure that PLA/CPL offerings are designed with equity and inclusion in mind. Access to these types of programs must be within reach for all adult students if they are to recognize the full benefits of receiving credit for what they already know,” said Becky Klein-Collins, vice president of impact at CAEL. “The ‘equity paradox’ we discovered helps shed light on the path forward as we pursue more parity with the application of PLA/CPL among today’s adult student populations.”

Read the full report and a one-page summary, and learn more about PLA/CPL at

About CAEL
Recognizing that adult learners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, CAEL helps forge a clear, viable connection between education and career success, providing solutions that promote sustainable and equitable economic growth. CAEL opens doors to opportunity in collaboration with workforce and economic developers; postsecondary educators; employers and industry groups; and foundations and other mission-aligned organizations. By engaging with these stakeholders, we foster a culture of innovative, lifelong learning that helps individuals and their communities thrive. A membership organization established in 1974, CAEL is a part of Strada Collaborative. Learn more at and

Since 1953, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has been strengthening higher education, workforce development, and behavioral health throughout the region. From promoting high-quality, affordable postsecondary education to helping states get the most from their technology investments and addressing behavioral health challenges, WICHE improves lives across the West through innovation, cooperation, resource sharing, and sound public policy. WICHE members include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawai’i, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and the U.S. Pacific Territories and Freely Associated States (the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia).


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