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Postsecondary National Policy Institute

Prior Learning and Competency-Based Education

A Background Primer

In the last several years, policymakers and the public have begun to question the nation’s system of higher education. Skyrocketing college costs, increasing student debt loads, and stagnating college attainment rates have led many to ask what the nation is receiving for its $236 billion annual investment in student financial assistance.[1] Additional concerns have been raised about the quality and value added by a college education.  A recent study found that during the first two years of school college added relatively little, with forty-five percent of college students showing no significant improvement in their knowledge and learning.[2]

At the same time that many are raising concerns about the cost and quality of American higher education, the positive economic benefits of a college degree have never been clearer. In 2008, the median earnings of full-time workers ages 25 and older for those with a bachelor’s degree were $55,700 -- $21,900 more than the median earnings of high school graduates. Additionally, this wage differential has grown substantially in the past few decades. While in 1992 the median hourly wages for college graduates were almost fifty percent more than the median hourly wages for high school graduates, by 2008 the difference in wages was almost double.[3]

Yet, although the economic and societal benefits of a college degree are clear, the proportion of Americans receiving a college education has changed very little in the last two decades and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) data indicate that the United States is falling behind, slipping to fourteenth in college attainment among OECD nations. As the rest of the world grows its college educated workforce, more and more jobs in the United States will require some form of postsecondary education just to keep up. One study estimates that by 2020 sixty-five percent of U.S. jobs will require a postsecondary education.[4] To reach this workforce need, the U.S. system of higher education will have to accelerate its current output of college degrees and credentials. In 2011, the percentage of Americans ages 25-64 with a two or four-year college degree was 38.7 percent. Among young Americans, the postsecondary education attainment rate in 2011 was slightly higher at 40.1 percent.

A number of avenues exist for increasing the number of Americans with postsecondary credentials and degrees -- increasing the percentage of high school graduates immediately enrolling in college, increasing college persistence and completion rates, and bringing individuals who have some college and no degree or credential back into the system to complete their educations.[5] Whatever the particular strategy, many argue it is essential that raising the nation’s college attainment rate be done so in ways that are both cost and time effective for students, institutions, and taxpayers and in ways that ensure that the credentials and degrees received are high-quality and meet the needs of employers. Use of prior learning assessments and competency-based education are two such strategies now receiving increasing attention.

Prior Learning Assessments

Prior learning assessments in the United States have their beginnings in World War II and the large numbers of veterans enrolling in college through the GI Bill. The GI Bill brought a wave of non-traditional students to the college campus. As many of these veterans were older and had family responsibilities, they wanted to complete their college education as expeditiously as possible and did not wish to sit in classes to repeat college-level learning and knowledge that they had gained during their time in the military. Beginning in the 1940s, the American Council on Education (ACE) undertook reviews of various military trainings and courses of instruction with the purpose of providing a source of recommendations for the awarding of college credit for learning veterans had gained while serving in the military.

As other groups of non-traditional students sought a college education in subsequent decades, the awarding of college credit for learning outside the traditional college classroom expanded beyond military training to include other forms and settings for college-level learning. For all of these non-traditional groups of students, many of whom are older, working, and with family responsibilities, receiving college credit for knowledge and learning already acquired offers the benefit of  both shortening the time to degree and lowering the total cost of college.

Additionally, a 2010 study of 48 institutions offering students the opportunity to earn college credit through prior learning assessments indicates that these assessments hold promise for meeting the goal of 60 percent of Americans having a college degree or credential by 2025. That study found that adult students who received prior learning assessment credit were 2.5 times more likely to persist in their education and complete their degrees than students who received no credit for prior learning.[6]

Types of Prior Learning Assessments

The underlying premise of prior learning assessment is that college-level learning can and does occur outside the traditional college classroom. As defined by the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), prior learning assessment is “ the process by which many colleges evaluate for academic credit the college-level knowledge and skills an individual has gained outside of the classroom, including from employment (e.g., on-the-job training, employer-developed training), military training/service, travel, hobbies, civic activities and volunteer service.”[7]

Today, there are four methods for assessing a students’ prior learning: (1) evaluation of military and corporate training and coursework; (2) standardized tests; (3) course challenge exams; and (4) student portfolios.

Evaluation of Military and Corporate Training

As discussed above, beginning in the 1940s, the American Council on Education (ACE) undertook reviews of military training to provide college credit recommendations for colleges and universities. ACE evaluates courses across all branches of the U.S. military and across all levels of instruction (vocational, associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate and professional). ACE employs subject matter specialists from higher education to carry out the course evaluations and to make determinations for whether or not to recommend the course for credit, and if recommended for credit, how much credit to recommend and at what level.

ACE maintains an up-to-date online database of the courses it has evaluated. In addition to its recommendation for credit, the ACE database includes information about the length of each course evaluated, the learning outcomes and objectives for each course, and the modes of instruction (e.g., lecture, independent study, practical exercises). Below are two examples of ACE reviewed military courses and recommendations.

Just as the military provides ongoing training and coursework to its members, many employers – corporate, nonprofit, government, religious, and unions-- provide education and training to their employees that are equivalent to college-level learning as a means to retain and build talent. Since the 1970s, the National College Credit Recommendation Service (formally known as the Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored Instruction or PONSI) and ACE have been reviewing and making recommendations for college credit for training and education programs offered by employers outside the traditional college classroom. Similar to the review of military training and education, the reviews conducted by the National College Credit Recommendation Service and ACE are led by teams of subject matter experts. Below are just two examples of workplace training reviewed by the National College Credit Recommendation Service and ACE.

The ACE and the National College Credit Recommendation Service’s recommendations are solely recommendations. Whether to accept the recommended credits is a decision that rests with each individual college and university.

In addition to reviews conducted by ACE and the National College Credit Recommendation Service, some individual colleges and universities conduct reviews of employer training and education to determine if such training might be eligible for college credit. For example, American Public University has partnered with Walmart to offer college credit for many of Walmart’s training courses, and the University of Phoenix has an extensive credit recommendation guide for workforce training and evaluation.

Standardized Tests

Another means for assessing prior learning is the use of standardized tests. Over the years, a number of national testing programs have been developed to test student knowledge of college subjects. The most well-known of these testing programs is one that primarily serves traditional students – the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program. Known to high schools and colleges alike, typically students who score a 3 or higher on an AP exam may be granted college credit. However, there are a number of additional national testing programs that were developed especially for adult learners.

The most well know of these are the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), DSST Exams (formerly known as the DANTES Subjects Standardized Tests), and Excelsior Exams.  Like AP, individuals who earn a passing score on these exams may be granted college credit. Although there is a fee ($80 and up) for taking these assessments, the fee is significantly less than what the cost would be for having to take an equivalent college course.  Further, if a student can earn credit for a course through one of these exams, the student saves significant time by not having to sit through the course and may advance more quickly towards his or her degree. However, as is the case with ACE and the National College Credit Recommendation Service reviews of military and corporate training, whether and how to offer students credit for their performance on a national standardized college exam is a decision that rests solely with each individual college and university.

The college courses covered by these three major standardized testing programs are those typically covered by the general college curriculum. Below is a chart of the exams currently offered by these three programs.

Course Challenge Exams and Student Portfolios

Course challenge exams and student portfolios are the two least standardized of the prior learning assessment models. Course challenge exams are, in essence, course final exams. For those colleges, universities, and departments that allow for this option, a student may seek to take a final examination for a given college course rather than spending the standard 16 weeks in a course with its requisite assignments and assessments. Like typical final course exams, course challenge exams vary in format and may contain multiple choice, short answer, essay questions, or performance tasks.  

Earning college credit through a student portfolio is the most individualized of all the prior learning assessment models. Institutions that permit students to use portfolios to earn college credit vary in their procedures; however, most procedures entail a student selecting the course or courses which they believe match their knowledge and skills, putting together documentation to support their claim for the prior learning required to earn college credit for the course, and submitting their documentation to a faculty member for review and final determination of college credit. To assist individuals in putting together such a learning portfolio, in recent years the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has launched a service called LearningCounts. Through LearningCounts students may create their portfolios through a self-paced non-credit course (Do-It-Yourself), or an instructor-led six-week 3 credit course.

Competency-Based Education

As discussed earlier, concerns are increasing about the quality of American higher education. For some time now, employers have been complaining that recent college graduates are lacking the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a competitive workforce. Additionally, studies of college student learning indicate that a college education as currently constructed and delivered is offering students relatively little value add to their knowledge.[8] Although these concerns are not new, they have taken on urgency given the increasing need for more Americans to have a high-quality postsecondary degree or certificate to compete and succeed in today’s economy.

One reform for ensuring college graduates have the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the workforce is competency-based education. Competency-based education distinguishes itself from traditional higher education by breaking away from the credit hour. Traditional higher education is time-based – a student earns a degree after earning a specific number of credit hours.  Under this traditional credit-hour based system, time is constant (e.g., 120 credit hours earned over 4 years), and learning is variable (e.g., a student earns the same number of credits for a grade of C- as he or she does for an A+). Competency-based education flips the traditional time-based model. Under a competency framework, learning is constant (e.g., a student has either mastered the concept or not), and time is variable (e.g.,  students may progress quickly through material which they find easy or with which they have familiarity, or slow down their pace and spend more time on material that is more difficult or less familiar to them).

Under a competency-based education model, students progress in their program of study not by accumulating credit hours, but by demonstrating their skills and knowledge of particular subject matter competencies through a set of assessments. Additionally rather than being graded on a scale of A-F as is the grading rubric in traditional higher education, in a competency-education framework students either demonstrate their mastery of competencies or do not demonstrate mastery. In most competency-based programs, mastery of competency is equivalent to a grade of B or better.

The origins of competency-based higher education programs within the United States date to the 1970s. At the time, competency-based programs were viewed as an attractive option for adult learners who often entered college with knowledge and skills that would allow them to advance quickly through some material, but who also needed additional time for newer material.[9] Although a number of competency-based programs were created in pockets across the United States, competency-based programs remained a small, relatively unknown niche in American higher education until the development of Western Governors University (WGU) in 1995.

Western Governors University was the creation of 19 western governors led by Governor Michael Leavitt (R-UT) and Governor Roy Romer (D-CO). At the time of its founding, the governors had heard from employers that traditional colleges were not graduating students with the skills employers needed. Additionally, many were worried about the rising cost of college. Thus, in its development the governors sought a new model of higher education that ensured graduates had the knowledge and skills necessary for the workforce that was both affordable and accessible. Competency-based education was the model they chose.

For each degree program at WGU, an advisory group of industry professionals and experts in a given field define the competencies for the degree to ensure that students gain the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in their chosen field of study and work. Students then take a series of assessments to test their mastery of the required competencies for their program of study.  For a point of reference, below are the required competencies for a WGU degree in health informatics.

Through their course of study, WGU students work with faculty mentors who help them select learning resources to prepare for each of the assessments required for measuring each program competency. These resources include textbooks, e-learning modules, study guides, simulations, virtual labs, and tutorials.

Today, WGU has approximately 39,000 students with over 23,000 degrees awarded in key workforce areas that include teacher education, business, information technology, and health professions. To ensure affordable access for students tied neither to time nor place, all degree programs are on line and tuition is a flat rate of $6000 for 12 months of learning that allows students to progress as quickly as they are able. The average time to graduation for WGU students is 30 months, well below the average of 60 months at traditional campuses.

Although WGU currently has the greatest name recognition as a competency-based education model, there are a number of other competency-based programs across the United States. Some of these programs are long-standing such as Alverno College’s program which began in the 1970s, and others are just recently launched such as Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America program. Additional new models are in the queue. Earlier this year, the regional accreditor Higher Learning Commission announced it was launching a pilot for schools in its region interested in pursuing a competency-based framework. Among the schools participating in that pilot are Capella University, Northern Arizona University, University of Wisconsin Colleges, and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. 

It is important to note that there is not just one model of competency-based education. Some models are carried out in the construct of a traditional course-based program such as Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania and others are using competency frameworks to drive redesign of the entire curriculum as Westminster College in Utah has done with its business degree program. Below is a listing of various colleges and universities in the United States implementing or in the process of implementing a competency-based education model.

Policy Implications for Prior Learning Assessments and Competency-Based Education

A recent Lumina Foundation and Gallup survey indicates that a majority of Americans are supportive both of prior learning assessments and competency-based education. Among the findings from that survey are:[10]

  • 87% of those surveyed said that students should be able to receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside the classroom
  • 75% of those surveyed said they would be more likely to enroll in a higher education program, if they could be evaluated and receive credits for what they already know
  • 70% of those surveyed said that if students have demonstrated mastery of course material in less time they should be able to get credit for the course without completing the full session

These findings demonstrate that many Americans are receptive to, and would be eager for opportunities to participate in, prior learning and competency-based education. Additional findings from that same survey indicate that adults see prior leaning assessments and competency-based education as two strategies for ensuring students receive high-quality degrees in a time and cost-effective manner. However, to date few students have opportunities to participate in either of these programs. Both reforms face both cultural and financial obstacles to their wider use.

While prior learning assessments have been around since the 1940s, few students have earned college credit for their learning outside the traditional college classroom. Aside from the Advanced Placement program that serves a traditional age college population, most adults who wish to attend college for the first time or return to college after a lapse in attendance—the group of students for whom prior learning assessments could be most beneficial—never learn an option may exist for earning college credit through prior learning assessments. Few colleges offer students credit for prior learning, and many of those that do, do not advertise this option to students. The unwillingness of colleges to accept prior learning stems from a long-standing faculty skepticism of, and bias against, learning that happened somewhere else, believing what was learned elsewhere to be of lower or inferior quality. The bias against prior learning is very similar to the bias against accepting transfer of credit from other institutions. Additional barriers that many schools have put up against prior learning are rules that only allow credits earned through prior learning to be applied as elective credits or placing caps on the number of credits that can be earned through prior learning assessment.

While the majority of institutions are skeptical of prior learning, a handful of institutions have a history of embracing prior learning. In the 1970s, four public institutions in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut were established to serve non-traditional adult students—Thomas Edison State College, Excelsior College (formerly Regents College and now a private nonprofit college), Empire State College, and Charter Oak State College.[11] Often referred to as “credit aggregators,” from the start these schools have assisted adults put together degrees by accepting and assembling their academic credits earned through prior learning assessments and other higher education institutions. Looking to the success of institutions such as these in assisting adults complete their degrees through prior learning, a small number of states in recent years have started to try to break down the barriers to prior learning both by advertising the option to students and by standardizing the acceptance of prior learning credits across their state institutions of higher education. Among these states are Tennessee, Washington, and Colorado. [12]

In addition to the institutional and cultural barriers to prior learning assessment, there are also financial barriers to their wider use. Under current federal rules for student financial assistance (Pell, student loans), the cost to students for prior learning assessments are not an allowable educational expense. Although the cost of many of these prior learning assessments is under $100 per assessment, for many low-income working adults that cost is often too high an out-of-pocket expense.

Similar barriers exist for competency-based education. The success of Western Governors University (WGU) along with the growing concern about the cost and quality of education has brought renewed attention to the promise of competency-based education as a significant reform in higher education. However, the number of competency-based programs in the United States remains very small. As with prior learning assessments, the two primary obstacles to greater adoption and creation of competency-based frameworks are cultural and financial.

For more than two centuries in the United States, higher education has primarily been delivered one way –students come to a campus and sit in a designated series of courses led by a professor for a designated period of time. Competency-based models turn this traditional model on its head and are often unsettling and met with skepticism by faculty and leaders of higher education who themselves are products of the traditional model.

Second, the credit hour, which competency-based models are designed to disrupt, is more than just the current measure of progress towards a degree – the credit hour has come to be the basis for awarding student financial aid and for determining institutional and departmental budgets.  Even though WGU and other competency-based models on one level do break from the credit hour and students progress through the program by demonstrating mastery of competency rather than by accumulating credit hours, to enable students to qualify for federal financial aid, WGU and others must equate everything back into credit hour equivalencies. Just recently, the U.S. Department of Education has approved Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America program for Title IV eligibility under a newer authority often referred to as “direct assessment.” Even though the statutory authority for approving competency-based education programs under the direct assessment option stipulates that direct assessment is to be used “in lieu of credit hours,” federal regulations for implementing direct assessment currently require direct assessment programs to establish credit-hour equivalencies. [13]

Although the cultural barriers to the use of prior learning assessment and competency-based education will most likely persist for some time, proponents of these strategies as a means to increase the number of individuals with a high-quality degree or credential in a cost and time-effective way are hopeful that the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act might serve as an opportunity to begin to break down the financial barriers to expansion of these strategies. Removing the federal financial aid barriers to these reforms, their proponents hope, will give the reforms the legitimacy they need for more rapid acceptance and adoption among traditional higher education.


[1] College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2012. (2012). Retrieved from http://trends.collegeboard.org/student-aid.

[2] Richard Arum & Josipa Roska, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[3] College Board, Education Pays 2010: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society (2010). Retrieved from http://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/education-pays-2010-full-report.pdf.

[4] Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, and Andrew R. Hanson, “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful

Employment and College Degrees” (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2012). Retrieved from http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/Certificates.FullReport.061812.pdf

[5] Many believe this last avenue holds great promise for raising the college attainment rate of the United States. Currently, approximately 36.2 million Americans ages 25-64 have some college but no degree.  For more information, see Lumina Foundation,” Strategic Plan 2013 to 2016.” Retrieved from http://www.luminafoundation.org/advantage/document/goal_2025/2013-Lumina...

[6] Rebecca Klein-Collins, Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: a 48-Institution Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2010). Retrieved from  http://www.cael.org/pdfs/PLA_Fueling-the-Race

[8] Richard Arum & Josipa Roska, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[9] Rebecca Klein-Collins, Competency-based degree programs in the U.S.: Postsecondary credentials for measurable student learning and performance (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2012). Retrieved from http://www.cael.org/pdfs/2012_CompetencyBasedPrograms

[10] Lumina Foundation and Gallup,  “America’s call for higher education redesign: The 2012 Lumina Foundation Study of the American Public’s Opinion on Higher Education”  (2013).  Retrieved from http://www.luminafoundation.org/publications/Americas_Call_for_Higher_Education_Redesign.pdf

[11] Tamar Lewin,  “Adults are flocking to college that paved way for flexibility,” New York Times
(2013, February 24). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/25/education/25degree.html?pagewanted=all

[12] For more information see:  Amy Sherman, Becky Klein-Collins, & Iris Palmer, State Policy Approaches to Support Prior Learning Assessment. (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning & HCM Strategists. 2012). Retrieved from http://www.collegeproductivity.org/blogs/state-policy-approaches-support-prior-learning-assessment. Tennessee Prior Learning Assessment Task Force, Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) Policy and Practice for Tennessee Public Colleges and Universities, (2012).  Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/files/Recommendations%20for%20Standards%20in%20PLA%20-%20Final%20Version%201-1.pdf

[13] United States Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education, “Applying for Title IV Eligibility for Direct Assessment (Competency-Based) Programs (GEN-13-10). (March 19, 2013). Retrieved from http://ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/GEN1310.html