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The value of Prior Learning Assessments for adult learners

Adult learners seek educational pathways for a variety of reasons. They’re building on existing skillsets and increasing their knowledge for a current profession, jump-starting new career paths and pursuing the next degree in their academic progression.

Nearly 27 percent of the U.S. undergraduate student population was 25 years or older in 20171 Different from their traditional-age counterparts, adult students bring with them experience from life and work that fresh-out-of-high-school students simply do not possess. They have often raised families, helped in their communities and earned work-related licenses or certifications.

It makes sense, then, to provide adult learners with the opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge they have spent years fine-tuning in the real world to a degree plan. This can be accomplished through  Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA.

PLA is an alternate pathway for students to demonstrate that hands-on learning through work and life has helped them progress to where they are when they choose to pursue a degree—experience that University of Phoenix believes is equivalent to what is learned in the classroom.

Valuable learning has occurred as a result, and through PLA, students can capitalize on that experience, saving both time and money on their degree through one of three methods:

  1. Portfolio – Students submit proof of corporate training, licenses, industry certifications, vocational coursework and other credentials for review. Credit could be awarded and applied directly to a student’s degree plan if the credential upholds the rigor, content and time associated with a college-level course.

Examples of portfolio credits include licensing in sectors such as real estate, insurance, piloting, corporate training, industry certifications or other college coursework.

  1. Experiential Journals – Students write on previously approved topics aligning with their life experience, demonstrating the learning that was achieved. Students work directly with their Student Services advisor to identify topics that may be applicable to their degree program prior to choosing a topic.

Examples of experiential journal topics include communication in management, weight management, and/or parenting. Students are provided a template for journal structure and then write on six sub-topics that outline and describe the learning and education they acquired during the experience. The journals are then reviewed by faculty for a determination as to whether any academic credit will be granted.

  1. Required Course of Study waivers (RCOS) – Students may apply for a PLA course waiver by using industry licenses and certifications that directly align to a class in the required course of study. Students would coordinate with their Student Services advisor to work through the waiver process. Examples of RCOS credit include Adobe, Microsoft and project management certifications, as well as police academy training.

Benefits of PLA

Between March and May of 2020, University of Phoenix awarded 6,047 PLA credits, with students receiving an average of 10 credits—the highest amount of PLA credit awarded in a quarter in the last 10 years. This is equivalent to thousands of dollars in savings on tuition.

While students can apply for PLA at any point in their academic progression, the earlier in their program they begin, the more beneficial the pathway can be. Additionally, nearly 70 percent of students who attend University of Phoenix are eligible to utilize PLA if they have open general education or elective courses.

Rather than filling gaps toward the end of a program, looking ahead at the beginning of an educational trajectory can provide students with even more options to use their experience than they may realize.
In addition to earned college credits applied toward a degree, PLA also allows students the unique opportunity to take skills and knowledge from one profession and transition them to another.

Because each PLA request is vetted through a process that ensures mastery of a concept, the real-world benefits of PLA extend into the student’s future career path with not only a degree behind them, but professional experience as well.

How to apply for PLA

To help students be more successful in their studies and accomplish their educational goals through PLA as a pathway, University of Phoenix has lowered the cost to a one time, no-risk $99 fee for credit applied through PLA. The application process has also been updated to ensure it is understandable and streamlined.

The process begins with filling out the PLA application. If you aren’t sure whether your previous experiences, jobs or industry certifications may qualify for PLA credit, you can find opportunities linked to past training for credit, topics linked to the journal option and current tests and providers on the PLA website.

On-the-job training counts

Current and potential undergraduate adult learners use PLA to demonstrate that college-level learning has occurred. There are several ways students can use their previous work experience to obtain college credit, including specific proof of training, licensing or prior vocational work.

And there are pre-approved experiential journal topics based on experience that can be leveraged for course credits. University of Phoenix faculty evaluate the student-submitted journals and make a credit determination.

Employers understand the value of on-the-job training, otherwise they would not invest so heavily in it. In fact, companies report recognizing that ongoing education and upskilling within their own workforce is necessary to prevent gaps in skills and to ensure quality.

As companies invest more in training, there is a correlated value to that training, even if it occurred in a prior occupation, as long as it is applicable. Many companies offer specific on-the-job training courses that may directly lead to PLA college course credits.

UOPX has a pre-evaluated prior learning list, but evaluations are not limited to this list.

Many employers seek relationships with colleges and universities to upskill or offer continuing education for their employees. Bolstering the skills of employees is beneficial to the individual as well as the company. Employees increase their value in a knowledge area and may have the opportunity to advance their careers based on degree progression.

At the same time, employers know that when employees gain credit and upskill with a degree or certificate, it only improves their own workforce. PLA may provide employers the opportunity to align their employees’ on-the-job experience for course credit toward degree paths.

Proving the value of Prior Learning Assessments

According to a LearningCounts study evaluating why students pursued PLA, the students indicated that did so for the following reasons2:

  • 90 percent – To complete their degree
  • 81 percent – To avoid taking a course in something they already know
  • 79 percent – To save money
  • 62 percent – To pursue upper-level coursework faster
  • 55 percent – All the above
  • 7 percent – Other

PLA efficacy can be demonstrated both anecdotally and through comprehensive research studies. When students were asked how using PLA helped them on their path to getting their degree, the top answers were3:

  • 53 percent – The process has helped me to organize my thoughts and decisions
  • 50 percent – The expected cost and time savings
  • 45 percent – The faculty and advising help I’ve received
  • 34 percent – The process has helped me map out my education and career goals
  • 8 percent – Other


PLA helps students save money and complete their degrees more quickly. Additionally, employers understand the value of PLA in helping their employees grow in the workplace to the point that many companies tailor their internal trainings to align with offerings through institutions of higher education.

PLA programs exist to acknowledge and reward learners for their real-world experience. University of Phoenix believes in helping students save time and money by acknowledging this experience.

More information regarding Prior Learning Assessment through University of Phoenix can be found here.

Joanna’s story

Joanna wanted to pursue a career as a therapist specializing in natural techniques. After high school, she enrolled in an academy of natural therapy in her home state of Colorado. In addition to other course work, Joanna took classes in anatomy & physiology, communication skills and pathology at the academy.

During the course of her schooling, Joanna got married and welcomed a child shortly after. Joanna halted her training at the academy to take time off to care for her family. Now 35, Joanna’s son is old enough that she has decided she wants to go back to school and enter the workforce.

Joanna wants to shift educational paths and wants to pursue a nursing degree. Unfortunately, the academy does not offer nursing courses, but University of Phoenix does. After speaking with an advisor, Joanna learned about PLA. Even better, she found out that her hours spent studying anatomy & physiology, communication skills and pathology could equal 11 credits towards her degree program.

Joanna goes on to shave nearly 15 weeks off her required class time and saves over $4,378 in tuition by applying training she already received at the academy to her current program at UOPX.

Larry’s story

Larry has always been a go-getter, and he knew that even while he was in high school, he wanted to work. By his sophomore year, Larry had landed himself his first job at a local grocery store as a bagger. While Larry was proud to have his first job, his goal was to go to college after high school to get a bachelor’s degree in business management.

Larry excelled both in school and at his job. He earned good grades and moved up the chain quickly at the grocery store. While getting promoted and learning new skills on the job, Larry was given the opportunity to take some leadership classes and seminars, which included:

  • Maximizing sales & profits sales solutions
  • Career advancement program
  • Leadership fundamentals

Larry loved his job at the grocery store, but after graduating, he still wanted to go straight into college. He left his job on good terms and enrolled at University of Phoenix. Little did he know that his time working at the grocery store would wind up saving him time and money at UOPX.

While discussing his experience with his advisor, he found out that the three classes he took as part of his job could actually qualify as PLA credits. As a result, Larry obtained 6.5 elective credits towards his program. This saved him 10 weeks of class time and $2,388 in tuition costs.

Jason’s story

Jason joined the military right out of high school. After leaving the military, Jason found a job working construction. With his military training and help from the GI Bill®, Jason decided he wanted to go to college and learn new skills. Over the next decade, Jason returned to school, but his education was inconsistent, as work and home responsibilities took precedence.

Shortly thereafter, Jason’s GI Bill benefits ran out, but he still wanted to finish his education. At the time, he was working for a medical facility, and his employer was willing to pay up to 80 percent of his tuition to help him get his degree.

Jason went back to school with a plan to pursue both an associate and bachelor’s degree. It was only when his advisor mentioned to him that his prior military and work experience might count towards credits that Jason realized how helpful PLA might be.

Jason applied for PLA credit through the portfolio option. He included certifications he earned, and outlined his military experience and training. As a result, Jason earned 24 PLA credits. PLA helped cover the remaining 20 percent that his employer did not cover.

 Shevonne’s story

Shevonne knew from a young age that she wanted to work in computing, but she never knew in what field. Unfortunately, Shevonne grew up in a rural area where there was little opportunity to learn about computers. While her schools had computers, they were very rudimentary.

One year for Christmas, Shevonne’s parents got her a computer of her own. She was ecstatic, and every waking moment outside of school she was at home, on her computer, teaching herself anything she could. As a result of her efforts, Shevonne became proficient in a suite of graphic design tools. She also spent time studying networking, gaining an understanding of local area networks and wide area networks, routers and other networking technologies.

Shevonne taught herself microcomputer system design and how operating systems work. By the time she graduated high school, Shevonne was proficient in computing technology. She went on to help other kids and families in her small town learn about computers and eventually built computers for some of her neighbors. From hardware to software, she was a self-taught expert.

Eventually, Shevonne decided she wanted to leave the small town she lived in and set out for a job in the big city. The problem was, many of the companies she was looking at valued experience, but they also wanted a college degree. Determined to achieve her goals, Shevonne decided to pursue a college degree.

After speaking with an advisor at University of Phoenix about her life experience, Shevonne was able to parlay her at-home learning on the computer into course credits. After compiling her journal experience and turning it in, she obtained a total of 12 credits toward her degree. In all, this saved her 20 weeks of class time and over $4,776 on the cost of her classes.


  1. IES, National Center for Education Statistics (2019) “Total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level of enrollment, control and level of institution, attendance status, and age of student: 2017,” retrieved from
  2. Sara Zalek (2013), Achieving Dreams: Results from a Survey of Students using LearningCounts Portfolios to Earn College Credit, Page 6, Retrieved from:
  3. Ibid.