This piece is authored by Becky Klein-Collins, VP of research and impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), an organization that’s been a leader in advocating for Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) for nearly 50 years. CAEL’s members include hundreds of colleges and universities that are seeking to improve and expand CPL and other programs and services that help align learning and work in ways that boost the economic mobility of adult learners and sustain the talent pipelines needed for community prosperity. Click here to learn more about CAEL and its mission.

In recent years, postsecondary institutions have started to ramp up their efforts to recruit and support returning adult students. This is long overdue—but also good timing. Now, more than ever, newly created jobs are requiring some kind of postsecondary learning or credential. Our current economy and individual economic mobility will benefit greatly from more of our workforce having increased skills and credentials.

Yet, as colleges are examining how to serve working adult learners better, policy-oriented researchers and advocates are raising awareness of the all-too-common problem of “lost credits.” That’s when colleges fail to accept credits in transfer from institutions that a student may have attended previously.

Unfortunately, this issue is both widespread and significant. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that each year, more than one-third of undergraduate students transfer. It also found that when they do, they forfeit, on average, about 40% of their prior credits. Why shouldn’t that credit count? Why shouldn’t that previous learning count? The learning acquired at one institution shouldn’t be seen as fundamentally different than learning that takes place at another institution.

But let’s take that argument further: why do so many colleges and universities fail to recognize the learning that a student brings from their other learning experiences, even if that learning occurred outside of a higher education setting? This is particularly important when it comes to adult learners who are coming to postsecondary learning with a lot of life experience—they’ve been in the workforce, they’ve been raising families, and/or they’ve been in the military. They’re people with full lives and years of learning from their diverse experiences. Some of the learning has been formal—like professional licensing or certification programs. But much has been informal learning while on the job, engaging in self-study, or doing work in the community. All this learning has potential value. The learning is often sophisticated, relevant to workplace needs, transferable to other situations, and comparable to the kind of learning that takes place in a college classroom. 

A win-win for students and postsecondary institutions

Institutions have the ability to assess someone’s experiential learning and award college credit for that learning through various methods referred to as Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) or Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). Colleges also have multiple tools to evaluate such learning for credit equivalence. For example, they can invite students to demonstrate their competencies through evaluations, which include standardized exams like the CLEP test, challenge exams developed by faculty, or a portfolio of learning that students compile for review. Colleges can also evaluate prior learning sources on the program level, creating roadmaps to credit for any student who completes it. Examples include formal training on the job, in the military, or through industry-sponsored certifications.

Benefits for both students are numerous when CPL is harnessed because it creates new pathways to academic and professional success by making the postsecondary experience inclusive of what students already know and can do. This can save students a lot of time and money, as well as frustration. When CPL is an option, students don’t find themselves in classes covering topics they’ve already mastered. This may be particularly important in our current moment, when so many students have had to stop out of their studies due to the pandemic, and won’t want to waste time on courses that they don’t need.

 Saving students time and money is also a win for institutions.  Research from  CAEL and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has also found that CPL is associated with higher rates of degree completion, both across the board and for key student subgroups: for every race and ethnic group, for students from all income levels, and for students attending all types of postsecondary institutions.

Our research examined student record data from more than 230,000 adult students who were enrolled at 72 postsecondary institutions. We tracked these students’ educational activities from their matriculation in the 2011-2012 school year through the end of 2018. About 11% of the adult students in our sample earned CPL credits of some kind, and those students earned an average of 15 such credits.

Based on the number of CPL credits students earned and their associated fees, we found that CPL significantly reduced the financial burden on participating students. Tuition savings amounted to $1,500 for adults at community colleges, $3,800 for adults at four-year public institutions, $10,200 for those at four-year private institutions, and $6,100 for adult learners at for-profit schools. We found CPL shortened the degree-completion journey by 9 to 14 months in terms of time savings.

But here’s the big finding: adult students with CPL were far more likely to complete degrees and other credentials compared to students without. Only 27% of the adult students without CPL completed a credential, compared to 49% of those with CPL. One concern that some institutions have is that by providing a lower-cost avenue to credit-earning, CPL could cost institutions tuition revenue (let’s be honest: higher education is a business, and institutional survival depends on paying attention to things like sustainable revenue streams).

Yet, since CPL students are more likely to stay enrolled and complete their degrees, they’re also more likely to complete more tuition-based courses from their institutions. In fact, our data show that CPL students take, on average, 17 more residential course credits than non-CPL students. So, in addition to shoring up student success, which goes hand-in-hand with institutional success, CPL can be a financial win-win for both students and institutions.

Better understanding CPL’s opportunity gap

Our research findings did highlight some areas of concern. Despite CPL’s powerful potential, it appears that CPL is one of higher education’s “best-kept secrets.” As mentioned above, only about 1 in 10 adults in our study earned any credit through CPL. Participation is even lower among Black, lower-income, and community college students. This points to possible access issues or opportunity gaps.

In a subsequent report, CAEL and WICHE dug deeper to explore such disparities in CPL credit-earning. What we learned was that there may be several factors at play that disparately affect Black and low-income students’ CPL credit-earning (and perhaps also other student groups that we’re focused on in terms of equity). Those factors include the cost to students through fees charged for CPL, insufficient student outreach, institutional policies and processes that value some types of experiential learning more than others, and lower levels of self-confidence.

Recommendations for mitigating these challenges include providing financial assistance to low-income students to cover fees (or making CPL free), assessing learning from a broader range of occupations, improving data collection and analysis to pinpoint equity gaps, and enhancing communications about CPL.

To help more institutions offer equitable and effective CPL programs, CAEL recently published free resources to help make a strong internal business case for CPL, support planning and design activities, and improve communications and outreach to students about CPL. Also free to CAEL member institutions are CPL micro-courses; toolkits; webinars; and a version of Credit Predictor Pro, a web-based system that helps institutions provide more consistent and intentional advice and guidance on CPL.

As long as we undervalue or exclude learning from outside of the classroom, we will fall short of meeting the needs of the students we hope to serve within it.  Fortunately, more educators, employers, and policymakers are recognizing that lifelong learning is the key to career success and economic mobility in a constantly changing workforce. CPL can help adult learners accelerate their pursuit of skills and credentials by helping them build on what they already know as they navigate on- and off-ramps between learning and work. Now it’s up to all of us to transform it from higher ed’s best-kept secret to a widespread best practice.

CPL’s innovative potential (by Michael B. Horn, co-founder of the Institute and distinguished fellow):

Credit for prior learning is a concept whose time has come for many more higher education institutions to embrace. The more institutions that adopt such a move will, as the piece lays out, translate into greater success for more adult learners and transfer students because their previous and outside learning will count toward a degree.

Because such a policy doesn’t mean just granting students credit for experience but instead assessing their learning, it will also result in a more rigorous understanding of what students know and can do—both when they enter an institution and as they exit an institution. This will help move the higher education system toward a competency-based one that prizes learning, not just seat time and credit hours, and one that’s more open to stacking credentials to help students learn in bite-sized chunks. That, in turn, should also create a clearer sense of the skills, knowledge, and competencies students master, which should also benefit those students as they search for jobs, as well employers as they seek the right candidates for open jobs. 

This move away from an institution-centered posture to a more learner-centered one focused on the accumulation of knowledge and skills will, of course, be challenging for many institutions. When schools accept students with prior learning, on the surface this will look like a loss of potential revenue because it will decrease the number of credits for which students will have to pay to graduate. But, as this piece observes, by boosting the odds of student success, it should make institutions more attractive and, in states that have moved to outcomes-based funding formulae, boost the success equation for many students.

This will also be hard for some institutions because they often stitch their majors and requirements together in proprietary—and ultimately idiosyncratic—ways. Despite evidence that suggests there are a set of roughly 30 foundational courses taught across institutions that have content in common to all, faculty in traditional institutions tend to view their courses as unique, made up of the course materials they select, with distinct syllabi, etc. Econ 101 at one institution may, in fact (not just in theory), be quite different from the same numbered course taught at another institution. In an education world that measures inputs like hours spent learning rather than outcomes, it’s hard to prove the case one way or the other. Thus, CPL asks institutions to make a big shift from their historical models focused on credit hours to prizing learning, which could be challenging.

Yet, it’s simpler than trying to create an interoperable, competency-based system across all higher education because it doesn’t ask any one school to accept the framework of all other schools; instead, it asks institutions to clearly define what knowledge and skills students must know in order to gain credit and assess if students have mastered those competencies.

At the same time, the relative simplicity means moving to CPL will not make higher education more transparent or easier to navigate for students, or less idiosyncratic from institution to institution. Forward-thinking institutions will have to figure out ways to assess prior learning up-front before students enroll to give them a clear view of what their mastery is and what it will mean for their future pathways.

This is our third “Innovation in action” piece (find the first piece here and second piece here), where we ask leaders in the postsecondary and K–12 space to discuss what innovation looks like within their community, institution, or school; why they believe it has the potential to help students; and tips for successful implementation or scale. At the end of each piece, we ask one of our education researchers to weigh in on what Theories of Disruptive Innovation have to say about the innovation.

Interested in contributing to the “Innovation in action” series? Contact Meris Stansbury, director of communications,


  • Christensen Institute
    Christensen Institute