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Prior learning assessments: Get college credit to save tuition costs


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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This article was reviewed by Bronson Ledbetter, MBA, Vice President of Student Services and Financial Operations

At a glance

This article was updated on December 12, 2023.

No one’s a blank slate. We all bring our own unique backgrounds, knowledge and experiences with us in every part of our lives. This is especially true of students, who may have learned skills in past jobs or programs that relate directly to the degree they pursue.

University of Phoenix (UOPX) offers an opportunity for students to have this kind of experience assessed and translated into potential college credit toward their degrees.

It’s called prior learning assessment (PLA) It can help students save time and money on their degree, but it’s important to understand the ins and outs of PLA before deciding if it’s right for you.

Use our Savings Explorer Tool® to see if your work, life and school experiences can give you a head start on your degree.  

What is prior learning assessment?

Students learn outside the classroom in various ways, including:
  1. Industry licenses and certifications
  2. Corporate or military training
  3. Vocational coursework
  4. Life experience

Many schools assess prior learning, particularly in the form of exams. Students can satisfy lower-level or general education credit requirements through this method.

The items on the above list, however, often don’t have standardized exams through which particular skills can be demonstrated and assessed. For students with this kind of experience, it can be hard to find a school to accept it. In effect, these students may have to take courses in topics they already have experience in.

With PLA, however, students can draw from a much larger pool of experience to earn college credit. This can translate to a lighter course load or a faster time to completion, which can save money on their degree.

How does PLA work?

Prior learning assessments assess a variety of learning that occurs outside the classroom, but broadly speaking, two types of experiences can be assessed this way.
  1. Work experience
  2. Life experience

Regardless of the type of experience students seek to have assessed, they will have to first be admitted to a university. Those interested in attending UOPX must be enrolled in a program that is eligible for work and life experience PLA. Not all courses at UOPX are eligible.

Before pursuing PLA, students should talk to an enrollment representative at UOPX about their specific experiences as it relates to their degree.   

It’s also important to underline that PLA strictly adheres to established institutional policy and accreditation standards, the same standards that relate to credits earned through traditional channels.

Credits for work experience

Work experience encompasses a number of types of experience. In many cases, this experience comes directly from a prior job in the form of employer training and certificates or certifications. You can find a full list of work experience on the UOPX website. In addition to those found on the list, UOPX can assess employer training, certificates and industry certifications that are not already on the list.

On-the-job training from companies has been assessed by University of Phoenix. This training may translate to college credits, though how every student’s past experience does or does not translate to credit can vary.

Industry licenses, such as a real estate license or a CPA license, may lead to the necessary credentials for college credit. Certain industry certifications and exams also may be valid, but again, this may vary.

This experience is valued in the form of a portfolio assessment. In addition to proof of completion of these kinds of programs, students will generally be required to provide other supporting documentation to potentially earn credit. Taken together, this forms the portfolio that students submit for PLA.

Credits for life experience

Students bring plenty of experience to the table that they didn’t learn in a corporate training program or for taking an exam. This experience will be unique to each student and is an important part of their prior learning. At the same time, there are not many certificates, exams or licenses to represent such experience.

Students cannot get credit for their life experience alone; they receive credit for the learning that occurred during that experience. Instead of collecting relevant documentation in a portfolio, students can instead demonstrate the relevance of their experience in the form of experiential journals.   

These journals are written in first person (“I,” “we”) and they give students the opportunity to connect their experiences to a specific topic. These life experiences include things like parenting, weight management, interviewing, family relations, communication in management, and more. The full list of valid experiences can be found here.

Broadly speaking, UOPX assesses seven general educational categories:

  1. Communication arts
  2. Humanities
  3. Physical/biological science
  4. Physical education
  5. Science/technology
  6. Social science

Each of these experiences are tied to specific degree requirements for a given program. Along with two letters of recommendation confirming that a student has experience related to the journal topic, completing this journal may result in credits. Different topics, however, do have different documentation requirements, so it’s not one size fits all.

You can find more information about this method of receiving credit for life experience by visiting the University of Phoenix website.

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PLA at UOPX, then and now

“PLA has been a part of the fabric of UOPX since its beginning” says Nathan Cicchillo, the director of admissions and evaluation for PLA, International, and College Articulation.

When the University was founded, according to Cicchillo, admission requirements to a bachelor’s degree program included a transfer of 60 or more credits. Some students used a combination of transfer credits and PLA credits to reach this threshold.

Since the beginning, UOPX has attempted to help students reach educational opportunities they might not find elsewhere. This was, and still is, very important for working professionals who are looking to save time and money on their degree.

“Similar to what we see today with our student population, our students back [in 1979] typically had some college credits, and some work and life experience that was relevant,“ says Cicchillo. “PLA was a way students could reduce the time and money spent on their educational goals.”

While PLA has always been a part of UOPX’s DNA, it hasn’t always remained the same.

“In 2019, we identified two of the primary barriers keeping students from pursuing PLA opportunities,” says Cicchillo. “These were the cost and the lack of clarity surrounding the process.”

To remedy this, UOPX dropped the fees for PLA. Considerable work has gone into making PLA information available and accessible to students, both on the main website and the Student Portal.

In addition, students can now see all the ways they can save on their degree, including PLA, through the Savings Explorer® tool. Putting this information front and center hopefully allows more students to pursue cost-saving opportunities at UOPX.


How much does PLA cost?

The evaluation itself comes at no cost to the student.

How does PLA compare to national testing programs like CLEP and DSST?

Much like PLA, CLEP and DSST may allow students to earn credits college credits outside of their completion of a traditional course. Both CLEP and DSST are evaluated by the American Council on Education and cover a wide range of disciplines, ranging from business to history to mathematics.

CLEP and DSST are national testing programs, administered by the College Board and Prometric respectively. PLA, on the other hand, is a type of assessment administered by individual institutions, each of which are individually evaluated and accredited. PLA at UOPX does not include a proctored exam. Instead, it requires students to submit a portfolio and/or experiential journal.

Another difference between these programs is the matter of fees. Both CLEP and DSST require a fee to take the exams (though the DANTES program covers one attempt per exam for eligible military personnel.) PLA does not require a fee for an enrolled UOPX student.

Do I need to choose between the professional portfolio and the experience journal? Can I do both?

Students can submit their experience in the form of either a professional portfolio or an experience journal, or both. Submitting for both, in fact, provides a greater opportunity to earn credit.

How can I get started with PLA?

You’ll have to be a currently enrolled student to begin an evaluation for PLA. Relevant links can be found in the Student Portal.

For those who have not yet enrolled, the Savings Explorer® tool can provide a broad overview of the opportunities to save time and money at UOPX.

PLA forms an important part of UOPX’s mission to make education accessible and available. By translating their prior life and work experiences into college credit, students can achieve their degree at a faster pace than they might have otherwise.

If you want to learn more about PLA, please visit the UOPX website.

Whether you’re interested in a bachelor’s, a master’s or an associate degree, explore other ways for you to save with UOPX’s Savings Explorer®!

Portrait of Michael Feder


Michael Feder is a Content Marketing Specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT and everything in between. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program, and a New Jersey native!


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