Through Prior Learning Assessments, or PLAs, students can earn college credits in areas they've already mastered without taking courses, panelists noted during "Debt and Disillusionment: Extending the Economic Advantages of Online Learning," a conference held in early October in Washington, D.C.
"We say come to us and show us what you know ... and we'll give you the credit, regardless of how you achieved it," said Ed Klonoski, president of Charter Oak State College, a virtual institution.
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Adult students with extensive professional training can particularly benefit through certain types of PLAs, the panelists said, including examinations, which offer the opportunity to earn credits through tests, and portfolios, which allow students to amass a lump sum of college credits at once.
Any student can attempt to test out of subjects at online schools including Excelsior College, which offers 50 exams that can count toward degrees. The tests cost between $95 and $395, and a passing score can earn between three and eight credits at Excelsior, college Provost and Chief Academic Officer Mary Beth Hanner said after the conference.
Students who fare best with these exams are typically independent learners, Hanner noted, and having discrete knowledge in the area being tested helps. (Examinations range from English Composition to Pathophysiology.) Test preparation is up to students, and, while test scores can be canceled after completion, no refunds are given for failed exams, she said.
"We tend to recommend exams for folks who really are self-starters," Hanner said.
Adults with significant professional training could also consider earning credits in bulk by creating a portfolio that showcases their experiences. LearningCounts.org, a project offered in part by the College Board, helps students create online portfolios for credit, said panelist Chari Leader Kelley, who serves as the vice president of LearningCounts.org at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).
Though costs and credits can vary by institution, CAEL's online portfolios are accepted at schools including Excelsior, Walden University, and Bellevue University (as well as at a variety of traditional universities).
At Excelsior, portfolios end up costing about $1,300, Hanner said after the conference, once students pay for assessments and a separate, required course: Prior Learning Assessment Theory and Practice. Prime candidates for the portfolio approach include students who are fluent in a foreign language, for instance, or who have gleaned business expertise after years as a middle manager, she noted. "It's a great value for 12 credits, for someone who really has had some significant learning," Hanner said.
Though PLAs could be a relatively cheap and quick way to rack up college credits, there are some downsides. Most PLAs are not currently eligible for federal funding, the panelists noted, meaning students will not be able to get federal grants or loans to put toward their costs.
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And, despite the potential savings, the methods aren't for everyone. Most Excelsior students, for instance, don't earn all their credits through examinations, Hanner pointed out during the panel discussion.
"It's kind of a lonely way to go to college," she said.
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