Starting College on the Right Foot: Credit for Prior Learning

Adults who seek postsecondary education may have little experience with higher education — but they bring a wealth of lived experience that, when properly acknowledged, can help them succeed in the classroom and with credential attainment.

Postsecondary institutions can support their persistence and completion with a robust credit for prior learning (CPL) program. CPL is a proven approach to improve completion rates, increase student diversity, and develop a more skilled and credentialed workforce. A strong and effective CPL program welcomes adults by demonstrating the institution values the knowledge they have already acquired in their life journey.

By acknowledging the valuable knowledge and skills students have acquired outside the traditional classroom, we have an opportunity to advance Michigan’s goal to increase postsecondary attainment. This is critical for the state to compete and become a leader in the modern, knowledge-based economy.

Benefits for students

Research indicates that CPL can significantly improve student retention and graduation rates, as it allows students to accelerate their time to degree completion by receiving academic credit for their previous experiences:

The uneven landscape of CPL

While there are numerous advantages to utilizing CPL, the complexity of assessing and validating prior learning can be daunting for faculty and staff.

Recently, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) surveyed 399 U.S. and Canadian undergraduate-serving institutions, representing a diverse range of institutional characteristics. This report highlighted several important trends in CPL:

  • 82% of sampled institutions offer some form of CPL currently, with an additional 9% considering doing so in the future.
  • 86% of institutions that offer CPL record the credit on the student’s transcript. The most common methods include listing the number of CPL credits (54%), showing CPL credit as a specific course with a pass/fail grade (50%), and recording CPL as testing or exam credits (31%).
  • Despite the benefits of CPL, 54% of institutions do not accept CPL awarded by other colleges or universities in transfer. Concerns include the integrity and rigor of CPL, lack of documentation and verification, and institutional policy and faculty discretion.

CPL across Michigan

Even with its complexity, several Michigan institutions have already begun successfully integrating CPL into their programs.

For example, Central Michigan University offers a robust CPL program awards credit for college-level (undergraduate and graduate) learning, including on-the-job experiences, workshops, seminars or professional development classes, and volunteer activities that have resulted in college-level learning. Students can receive up to 60 undergraduate credits or 12 graduate credits.

Similarly, Grand Rapid Community College offers prior learning authorization (another name for CPL) whereby a student applies for credit by preparing a portfolio that documents their experience and explains how that experience meets the learning outcomes. The portfolio is evaluated by a university-trained faculty assessor against the learning outcomes. Credit is awarded if the documented experience shows that the outcomes have been met.

Opportunities for growth

While many institutions in Michigan allow for some form of CPL, much can be done to provide these opportunities to adult learners.

The AACRAO report demonstrates that awareness of CPL opportunities is usually provided through passive means that require adult learners to seek out the information. Providing more active outreach can increase awareness and utilization of the CPL programs.

To evaluate and award CPL, many institutions also require some form of fees that are not eligible for financial assistance. This can present a barrier to many adult learners who may be interested in pursuing this option. Eliminating fees or providing needs-based financial assistance can also significantly increase the number of adult learners that take advantage of CPL programs.

As noted above, the transfer of CPL credits is a barrier to the effectiveness of CPL programs. Bringing Michigan institutions together to develop a framework for CPL credit transfer would significantly increase the value of CPL credits. As we learned in an April MI-RAISE Design Lab discussion on the topic, sometimes the transfer barrier can be resolved by issues as simple as changing how a CPL credit is coded on a transcript.

The potential for CPL extends beyond traditional academic settings. Incorporating CPL into workforce development programs can help bridge the skills gap and meet the needs of local industries.

By recognizing the value of prior learning, institutions can create stronger partnerships with employers and provide students with the credentials needed for career advancement.

CPL can also be expanded to include informal learning experiences, such as volunteer work, community service, and online courses. By broadening the scope of CPL, institutions can better support adult learners in achieving their educational and career goals.

Some employers are advocating to extend CPL for traditionally overlooked entry-level employment roles, such as working in retail and fast-food.

Everyone wins with CPL

At a time when Michigan faces an imperative to improve the success of adult learners, integrating CPL into postsecondary education provides a win-win-win opportunity.

Students win by gaining academic credit for their prior learning, reducing the time and cost of earning a degree. Institutions win by attracting and retaining a diverse student population, enhancing their reputation for innovation and inclusivity. Most importantly, employers and communities win by benefiting from a more skilled and educated workforce.

The Michigan Center for Adult College Success, an initiative of TalentFirst, is committed to working with postsecondary education institutions across Michigan to help explore and implement creative solutions like CPL to better serve adult learners.

The Center is currently planning to launch a curriculum-based design lab in the fall, including supports for initiating and bolstering CPL. More details will be posted on our website as they become available. If you are interested in partnering with us in this work, reach out to us at


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