Points of View

Workforce Development and the Use of Prior Learning Assessments

Tammy Britton

Adults in the workforce gain critical skills with varying levels of formality – on the job training, life experience, military service, professional or industry certifications. Many adults, however, still find it difficult to place a value on their experience within an economy that puts increasing emphasis on post-secondary education.


One solution is the prior learning assessment (PLA) – a tool within higher education institutions that helps workers gain college credit for prior learning.

A recent pilot project by Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) shines a light on methods to improve PLA processes between community colleges and workforce development systems, with the goal of increasing post-secondary attainment for adults.


CAEL documented its efforts in a report, Linking Public Workforce Systems and Community Colleges through Prior Learning Assessments: Learning from a National Pilot Project, which included recommendations for communities interested in improving PLA systems.


Uncovering the possibility

The pilot, funded by the ECMC Foundation, began in early 2017 in four communities – Philadelphia, Hampton Roads, Va., Miami, and Seattle. CAEL worked over an 18-month period with systems that included workforce boards, workforce partners at American Job Centers (AJC), and community colleges. 


The work is important because we know that the economies of today demand higher rates of post-secondary attainment – and that this will only increase in the future. In West Michigan, Talent 2025 has set a goal for at least 64% of adults to have some education beyond a high school diploma by 2025. To meet our goal, we must connect adults with practical opportunities to achieve this.


In this effort, PLAs are useful tools whereby non-credit training or skills, knowledge, and abilities gained outside of a traditional classroom can be evaluated for college credit.


Unfortunately, PLAs are not usually highly visible or well understood outside of educational institutions. Workforce or industry credentials may have already been evaluated for credit without an individual being aware of the opportunity.


Connecting systems

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) emphasizes the importance of partnerships between community colleges and the workforce system; PLAs can be powerful connections to support these relationships. PLAs can help define or refine career pathways and increase the skills of the current workforce, particularly for adult learners, dislocated workers, and veterans.


CAEL’s report reiterates that assessment of prior learning has been identified nationally as a successful strategy for reaching post-secondary attainment goals. PLAs save time and money, provide quick attainment of post-secondary credentials, boost individual confidence, upskill the workforce, and add value to non-credit, workforce system and employer-supported training.


Pilot project outcomes

During the pilot project, CAEL provided guidance in strategy, partner training and process development. It supported improvement for workforce system selection and the process for referring individuals to community colleges for PLAs.


The pilot project also focused on the crucial need to provide cross-system education about the current process.


Outcomes included:

  • Better understanding of PLA among workforce boards, American Job Center (AJC) operators, WIOA providers, community college staff, and other stakeholder organizations
  • Established frameworks for analysis of Individual Training Account (ITA) for assessment
  • Greater collaboration among partners
  • Increased promotion of PLA as a tool for reaching post-secondary attainment goals
  • Established processes for discerning creditable learning and connecting AJC customers to the PLA process

Considerations and recommendations

The efforts executed in the pilot communities – enhanced existing partnerships, increased PLA awareness, process mapping and improvement, building additional pathways, increased opportunities for residents – added value to the participating partners.


The greatest benefit was the systems-level change and new bridges built between partners. Of course, this is difficult work. It requires resources, time, and dedication from multiple staff within each entity. It is not a fast process and it is challenging. But it can be done. 


CAEL provides four areas of consideration with recommendations for other communities interested in undertaking this process:

1. Develop process and policies that make PLA accessible

2. Develop and promote crosswalks from non-credit training to for-credit college courses

3. Invest in cross-organizational professional development and PLA awareness materials

4. Don’t underestimate the value of partnership and the work required for systems change


“Strengthening relationships between the public workforce system and their community college counterparts through intentional PLA strategies creates a win-win scenario,” the report states. “It provides greater opportunity to students and jobseekers, addresses performance metrics, and benefits employers struggling to find individuals who possess the skills and credentials they need.”