CPL is the practice of documenting a student’s existing knowledge and skills through written assessments or validation of earned credentials.

CPL programs growing among adult students, learners of color

New data shows increase in learners receiving CPL, with particularly strong growth among learners of color

Key points:

New data points to an increase in the percentage of newly-enrolled bachelor’s degree learners receiving credit for prior learning (CPL) in recent years, according to an outcomes brief from Capella University, an online university with a focus on competency-based education and a history of serving working adults.

CPL helps returning learners apply their work and lived experiences toward academic credit–and it can often help learners earn a degree quicker, at a lower cost.

According to internal evaluation data from Capella, the percentage of newly enrolled bachelor’s degree learners receiving CPL increased between 2019 and 2022.

“Too many working adult and parent students remain locked out of economic opportunity simply because many institutions still do not have the capacity to reflect the full breadth and depth of the valuable skills gained on the job, in military service or other informal learning experiences. As a once only parent and veteran who juggled multiple roles while studying, I’ve experienced this firsthand,” said Dr. Constance St. Germain, president of Capella University.

“This is about giving credit where credit is due by transforming lived experiences into valuable academic credentials with real currency in the labor market. The positive impact on students from underrepresented backgrounds is particularly encouraging.”

Research from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has found that CPL may increase the likelihood to complete college credentials, while improving cost and time savings. According to a WICHE brief, nearly 8 out of 10 surveyed institutions in this country offer some form of CPL.

CPL is the practice of documenting a student’s existing knowledge and skills through written assessments or validation of earned credentials. In exchange, students can receive college credit for their previous learning gained outside of formal instruction. Capella University’s program–designed using rigorous standards created by CAEL–allows students to earn credit when they demonstrate relevant, college-level knowledge gained through formal and informal work training, continuing education, self-instruction, professional certifications and other learning.

The brief provides an interim progress report on the continued success of Capella’s CPL program, highlighting the impact of CPL on outcomes for students of diverse demographics and professional backgrounds. According to data compiled by the university’s analytics team, the percentage of bachelor’s degree learners entering Capella University who receive CPL has continued to grow. In 2019–2020, 9 percent of new bachelor’s learners received CPL, and in 2021–2022 that rate rose to 11 percent. During this three-year span, 10 percent of all new Capella learners enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs received CPL.

Not surprisingly, many of the students leveraging CPL at Capella are balancing education with part- or full-time work. Between January 2019 and December 2022, more than half of newly enrolled bachelor’s learners who received CPL were affiliated with employer partners. The data also revealed promising new evidence around the positive impact of CPL for learners of color. In 2019, 7 percent of newly enrolled white learners in bachelor’s programs had CPL, compared with 4 percent of learners of color. These percentages increased between 2019 and 2022 to 12 percent of white learners and 10 percent of learners of color.

“CPL has a long and storied history in higher education: it’s now earning a moment of well-deserved prominence because of the increased focus among institutions meeting the needs of working and adult students from demographically diverse backgrounds,” said Jillian Klein, senior vice president of government and external affairs for Strategic Education, Inc., parent company of Capella University. “This data shows that CPL continues to reach new heights in terms of its positive impact on student outcomes and experience. We hope that this research will be of use not only to practitioners but also to researchers and policymakers seeking to scale high-impact practices that promote student success and economic mobility for adult students.”

The new outcomes brief is part of a series of research reports from Capella University on advances in innovative delivery models for adult learners. In 2021, Capella University released “Unlocking the [Full] Potential of PLA,” a report that gives detailed recommendations for how institutions can use prior learning assessment, now known as CPL, to help improve student outcomes.

This press release originally appeared online.

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Laura Ascione