Since as far back as 1974 (http://www.cael.org/pdfs/future-of-pla-article), prior learning assessment (PLA) has been a topic of interest among the stakeholders in higher education, and in September 2015, Montana joined a growing number of states that support some inclusion of PLA and credits for “college-level learning…acquired outside of the traditional college setting” (https://mus.edu/borpol/bor300/301-19.pdf).
The Montana Board of Regents Policy 301.19, adopted on September 17, 2015, clears the way for state colleges and universities to award up to 25% of a student’s degree credits through prior learning assessment. The 25% cap follows the precedent set by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. These credits are primarily considered “experiential learning-based credits…acquired through work and learning…such as independent reading and study, mass media (as defined by NWCCU), open courseware or other self-directed learning…and the assessment may be via a standardized exam (e.g. CLEP, DSST, or UExcel), a course challenge exam…portfolio assessment, or other faculty-determined assessment methods.”
Montana University System (MUS) institutions will maintain oversight of PLA via each institution’s highest ranking academic officer, and each institution should have a designated PLA liaison. Part I Section F of the policy addresses rigor of PLA learning, and Section G addresses student fees that “will be transparent throughout the Montana University System…and reflect the operational cost of administering a PLA program.” Ideally, PLA credits would shorten the required length of time to completion of a degree and help to make higher education more affordable. Students who might benefit the most from such opportunities could include military veterans and nontraditional students. Additionally, other credits that fall into the “instructional-based credits” category, which includes advanced placement, International Baccalaureate exams, military training and educational programs, faculty-developed course challenge exams, and formal training and educational programs evaluated by the American Council on Education or National College Credit Recommendation Service do not count toward the 25% PLA cap.
Many people, especially those directly involved in higher education, have concerns about both the intent of such programs and unintended consequences. Questions about transferability of credits—at least in Montana—are addressed in Policy 301.19 in Part I Section C: “PLA will be made available for approved programs in a consistent, transferable and comparable means […and] once recorded on an MUS transcript, PLA credit is transferable on the same basis as if the credit had been earned through regular study at the awarding institution.” Concerns about rigor and oversight are addressed repeatedly by noting the importance of faculty involvement and faculty-designed assessment tools. Nonetheless, some skepticism remains about the equivalency of specific, individual content mastery and a semester worth of grappling with content and interacting with other students and faculty mentors. In writing, for example, a person could completely master the rules of grammar and mechanics but remain far from proficient in composition, and in reading a person might be capable of decoding but unable to critically analyze a passage. Perhaps this is where the institution’s mission and vision become important.