Prior Learning Assessment approaches major course-review milestone

Nearly 50,000 courses from other institutions have been reviewed, added to Penn State's transfer-credit database

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Every year, thousands of students bring into Penn State as many as 300,000 credits from other institutions, the military, job training, portfolios and specialized tests.

The circumstances behind each student's situation varies. They can be a transfer student looking to continue their education at Penn State due to a move, a desire to study at the University over their current school, or they may have just finished a two-year degree. They might be returning to education from a hiatus lasting one year or 10 years. There also are military veterans who are looking to make use of government funding as part of their compensation for serving in the armed forces. Or, a student may simply choose to take a few credits at a different school near their hometown while home on summer break.

These prospective and current students depend on Penn State having a system in place that can figure out how to award credits based on previous educational experiences.

Soon, there will be 50,000 total courses added to the transfer database through the Course Substitution Request System that’s been in place since 2016. As of July, more than 49,000 courses have gone through the faculty review system.

Also in early July, Penn State rolled out a new Transfer Credit Tool that is accessible to the public, allowing people to see if a University course has an already-evaluated equivalent from another institution.

Michele Rice, director of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), has been working to develop the relatively new office over the last four years and forge relationships between the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, faculty and University administrators.

Now, she said, PLA is gearing up to be even more public-facing at a time when universities are trying to serve an increasingly diverse population in terms of learning backgrounds, all the while retaining academic integrity. One recent step was through the release of the Transfer Credit Tool. Rice said she also hopes to increase the profile of portfolio classes. Both moves can help groups like adult learners reduce their time to degree and better evaluate what they’ve already learned.

“The work we do in assisting admissions has a significant bearing on a student’s time at Penn State,” Rice said. “We’ve been working hard to devise a system that is fair to the student in terms of evaluating their prior learning, while respecting the academic rigor set down by the academic colleges. With every syllabus that’s evaluated, the process gets a little easier and the number of transferable courses grows.”

Thirteen years of school

Students often have a combination of prior learning experiences.

Take the case of a student like Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Watkins, who is a father, husband and a utilitiesman in the Navy Seabees currently deployed overseas. He is pursuing a bachelor of science in energy and sustainability policy and a minor in energy business and finance through Penn State World Campus.

Watkins has a rather complicated 13-year history in higher education and brought in a smattering of credits from various institutions. He took general education courses in Chicago at Harold Washington, then transferred to the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities in the architecture program. After a year there, he transferred to the Illinois Institute of Technology to pursue a five-year professional degree. After the 2008 economic downturn he said student loans were too difficult to get, so he left IIT and returned to the University of Minnesota, but only part time and worked two jobs to pay as he went.

That proved to be an unsustainable course, he said. So, Watkins joined the military to begin working in the industry as a Seabee, the Navy’s construction unit.

“Once in the military it became impossible to pursue an accredited architecture degree, which all require studio courses that must be attended in person,” Watkins said. “So I started taking classes at various schools that work closely with the Navy to provide accessible learning/testing environments. I took classes during this time from University of Wisconsin and University of Oklahoma, focusing on engineering. I believe I also transferred a few credits toward the gym requirement from my boot camp experience.”

Watkins brought 132 credits with him to Penn State, which is already well over the required 120 for bachelor’s candidates. Most of his useable courses were applied to meet electives and general education requirements, but six courses were able to be used to satisfy degree requirements. With a total of 46 credits applied at a rate of $596 per credit, he saved $27,416.

“Having credits satisfy degree requirements was a huge help, and a big reason why I chose Penn State when researching where to finish my degree while in the military,” he said. “I had lost a lot of credits transferring between U-of-M and IIT —even while staying in the same field of study — and was preparing myself to lose many more as I transferred to Penn State.”

Adult learners

Adult learners like Watkins make up about 20 percent of the student body at Penn State. They are often defined as having one or more of the following characteristics: are 24 years of age or older; are a veteran or active duty military; are returning to school after four or more years of employment or homemaking; or are assuming multiple adult roles like parent, spouse or employee.

While not all adult learners will have applicable prior learning to apply toward credits, those who do can use it to get back into the workforce quickly if they’re trying to switch career paths.

As The New York Times recently illustrated, the barriers to returning to school for adult learners can be high. The article, in addition to anecdotal stories from adult learners, points to a McKinsey Global Institute report that says 16 million to 54 million workers may need to switch to a different occupational group by 2030.

That continued education can run an adult learner anywhere from the price of a four-door sedan to a two-bedroom house, all while they may be raising children, paying a mortgage, or caring for a parent. Making sure outside courses are applied to their fullest extent can help a student potentially save tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs.

Jeff Adams, associate vice president and associate dean for Undergraduate Education, said having faculty carefully evaluating outside courses means the University has a better sense of what an incoming student already knows.

“I've never met faculty anywhere who wanted students in their classroom who already knew and had a good grasp of the material in their class,” said Adams, who previously held the assistant vice provost position at Millersville University. “We don't want that for students.”

At the same time, Adams said it is important that a student is capable of doing the work in more advanced classes. If a student were to fail a class, that hurts their ability to pay for and eventually finish their degree.

“They (faculty) don't want to set the student up for failure,” Adams said. “We believe in the integrity of what we do. We believe that students should be able to demonstrate they've learned the appropriate material, so they can be successful in their follow-up work at Penn State.”

New credit search tool released

In the old transfer course database, a whopping 80 percent of the half a million course evaluations were labeled as general credit. That has shrunk to 20 percent in the new system. A fundamental change is that faculty now review all courses every five years and allow any course that is 80 percent in common with a Penn State course to receive a direct equivalency.

“We didn't want to have stale evaluations,” said Amanda Maxson, assistant director for transfer admission, on refreshing the transfer database. “We wanted a student to get the best evaluation that they could.”

On July 6, Penn State announced a new Transfer Credit Tool developed by Undergraduate Admissions and the LionPATH Development and Maintenance Office. Now a prospective student can check the database for themselves to see if courses they’ve taken at other institutions have an equivalency at Penn State, and therefore could be awarded credit for it.

It’s more likely that courses from schools in Pennsylvania and surrounding states have already been evaluated, Maxson said. A student transferring in from a Pennsylvania community college, for example, will find their courses likely have a Penn State equivalent.

Then there are students who come from a school that has seen few students transfer to Penn State, meaning it’s less likely their courses have been evaluated.

When an evaluation is needed, Undergraduate Admissions will request a syllabus from the student for the prior course. The syllabus is then given to one of the 200 committees responsible for evaluating the material of the prior course and deciding how it should be applied. The committees are comprised of faculty from Penn State campuses across the Commonwealth.

Few schools in the Big Ten currently have a similar system in place, according to Rice. Her research has shown that some universities have their courses reviewed by a transfer coordinator. Others have programs that live in the registrar’s office or a transfer center, and it’s not always clear how faculty are involved in the evaluation of courses.

It’s Rice’s job at Penn State to help recruit faculty to the committees and follow-up on transfer reviews. She said once a course receives an evaluation from a committee, colleges have additional flexibility of how to classify the use of transferrable credits.

“Our faculty are very thoughtful and have explicit guidelines they’ve created to complete reviews,” Rice said. “Their specialized knowledge of their disciplines means they’re the best people to be developing those guidelines and evaluating syllabi.”

It’s then Maxson’s team within Undergraduate Admissions who facilitate the data input and make sure a decision on credits makes it to a student’s transcript in LionPATH. They in turn receive support from Administration Information Services, which developed the Course Substitution Request System and provide maintenance.

The future of Prior Learning Assessment

Now Rice and her colleagues are working on procedures for tasks such as portfolio learning and trying to get military veterans more access. Veterans, who in 2015-16 made up 19 percent of the student body at Penn State, can get some credit for their training and tests such as the DANTES (Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support) Subject Standardization Test (DSST).

In addition to the DSST exams, Penn State also accepts College Level Examination Program exams through the College Board. Internally, some Penn State departments already have credit-by-exam tests where credit for a course can be earned for taking a comprehensive exam for classes such as CHEM 110/111. Rice said she’s also working to expand those offerings.

Students who request portfolio evaluations for specific courses must document college-level learning, not just experience, Rice said. To assist that effort, students can take LA 201W, Experiential Learning Portfolio. This fall, the College of the Liberal Arts is even offering a section of the course for military veterans and active service members so that they may reflect on how their training may apply to their degree.

Work training also can sometimes count as acceptable prior learning, such as through the police and nursing professions.

Rice said the development of the prior learning office is always ongoing. It’s her hope, she said, to continue being as transparent as possible about the process to the public and potential students, that while there may not be a guarantee they will be able to substitute a course, at least the process can be simple. The idea is that potential students are able to answer some of their own questions when applying to Penn State and know financially what they’re getting themselves into.

Adams said the University is able to retain integrity through its faculty-driven review process that adheres to specific college standards, as sometimes courses that appear similar from a name or short description aren’t similar at all.

“You've got to look at the quality of the education you will receive and the value placed on the degree you will earn,” he said.

Prior Learning Assessment is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at

Michele Rice is the director of Prior Learning Assessment. Credit: Steve Tressler / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 12, 2021