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PLAs for Nursing Students: Earn College Credit for Work Experience

July 29, 2020 | Staff Writers

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An RN-BSN degree represents a significant financial investment and may take three or more years to complete. Degree-seekers can save time and money by earning college credits for previous workplace training or other kinds of non-academic experiences.

To receive credit for prior learning assessment (PLA), nursing students must demonstrate how the knowledge and skills acquired through previous experiences transfer into college-level courses. Most schools require a minimum of two years of practice experience as an RN to qualify for PLA credit. Nursing students may take advantage of four PLA options:

  • 1. A portfolio that documents subject area mastery evaluated by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning or nursing school faculty.
  • 2. A standardized subject examination offered by organizations, such as the College Board’s College Level Examination or Advanced Placement Examination.
  • 3. Challenge exams created by nursing programs to provide rigorous assessment for the content of specific courses.
  • 4. Credits for employment, volunteer, or military training awarded by the American Council on Education (ACE) or the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS).
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    According to research published in Nursing Education Perspectives, a high percentage of nursing students perceive PLAs as a flexible and affordable option that can lead to significantly higher graduation rates compared to non-PLA recipients. PLA students complete their degree at a faster rate and reduce their overall educational costs.

    Prior Learning Assessments in Nursing School

    Nursing students may receive credit for prior learning from an array of previous experiences, including full- or part-time work, military training, independent research, and volunteer work. However, not all experiences qualify for PLAs. The PLA methods used by nursing schools ensure that students possess formally mentored knowledge equivalent to RN-BSN course requirements.

    One of the most common PLAs used by nursing programs, the individual assessment of experience method requires students to prepare a portfolio for college credit based on their previous work experience and other forms of non-credit learning. The portfolio documents how these experiences transfer directly into the content of college-level courses.

    Another popular PLA — the non-college education and training evaluation method — assesses occupational, volunteer, and military training to determine equivalency for college credit. The ACE or NCCRS perform these assessments, or schools may work directly with employers — such as hospitals or healthcare facilities — to evaluate their training experiences.

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    PLAs and RN-to-BSN Programs

    Although some nurses obtain their RN license after completing a four-year BSN, many RNs who already hold an associate degree or a nursing diploma enter an RN-BSN program. They may transfer credits, including PLAs, in order to graduate in three years or less. BSN graduates pursue a variety of healthcare careers, often entering supervisory positions and earning higher salaries than nurses without a bachelor’s degree.

    Because PLA policies differ widely from one program to another, nursing students should consult with a faculty advisor about credit maximums, costs for PLA credits, and whether their prior experiences qualify. Degree-seekers may obtain PLA credits from standardized tests or challenge exams early on in their studies. As they progress in their program, students may choose to submit a portfolio in one or more nursing content areas, providing evidence of college-level knowledge and skills to receive PLA credit.

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    Competency Based RN-to-BSN Programs

    Competency based education (CBE) has gained acceptance in nursing programs because it enables students to move ahead at their own pace, saving both time and money. Rather than taking classes on a fixed schedule, students in competency based RN-BSN programs progress toward their degree by completing competency assessments. These assignments demonstrate the acquisition of knowledge and skills directly applicable to nursing careers.

    Working nurses may be unsatisfied with traditionally taught classes because they already know the course material. CBE programs recognize the knowledge one gains through work experience, and allows returning students to translate their skills into credit.

    Unlike earning credit through PLAs, which are predominantly course-based and initiated by students, CBE models apply to entire nursing programs. The CBE curriculum assesses the student’s mastery of competencies for nursing careers based on standards established by nursing professionals.

    Taking Advantage of PLAs for Nursing School

    Nursing students often take advantage of PLA options to receive college credits for prior work and life experiences. While each nursing program establishes its own PLA procedures, portfolio assessment remains a popular method for establishing the competency for specific nursing behaviors.

    RN-BSN programs provide students with precise guidelines and rubrics for the portfolio process, outlining how to provide evidence established for each of three nursing content areas: community and population focused healthcare; leadership and management; and research and evidence-based practice/spirit of inquiry.

    In addition to documentation of evidence and written reflections, all three content areas require at least two years of RN practice experience. Nursing students preparing portfolios in community and population-focused healthcare, or in leadership and management, must also provide evidence of working in those fields for at least one year as part of the practice requirement.

    According to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), earning PLA credits, especially in the form of portfolio assessment and standardized tests, contributes to persistence and degree completion. A recent CAEL study concludes that students who receive PLA credits are less likely to interrupt their studies for personal, financial, or work-related reasons, and are more likely to graduate, especially if they earn PLA credits early in their studies.

    Prior Learning Assessments for Nurses in COVID-19

    CAEL, in collaboration with several partner foundations, has published a landscape analysis and supporting research addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on postsecondary education. As the nation struggles to reopen, this research argues for a greater emphasis on prior learning assessment to help students and displaced workers earn the necessary educational credentials to find employment in the economic recovery.

    Policymakers and educators must recognize, expand, and promote PLA tools as key components of degree programs and workforce training. In many industries, unemployed workers unable to return to their previous jobs need training to enter new careers. Educational institutions and workforce development initiatives must respond to student priorities, especially those of non-traditional, adult learners. This includes expanding degree-completion options and reforming financial aid policies to cover the cost of prior learning assessments.

    Broader opportunities for awarding credit for prior learning strengthens the post-pandemic workforce, enticing students to enter degree and certification programs that build on their previous experiences and skills, saving them time and money.

    The Future of PLAs for Nursing Students

    As employment prospects for degreed healthcare professionals continue to grow, nursing students benefit from the expansion of prior learning assessment models. The CAEL study offers four recommendations for strengthening PLA tools that apply to a variety of disciplines.

  • 1. Educational institutions should make sure that workers understand how PLA awards college credit for previous work experience, building on existing skills and developing new ones.
  • 2. Schools must develop processes that guide students through available PLA opportunities at multiple stages in their education, beginning with recruitment and matriculation.
  • 3. Although PLA credits reduce the overall cost of a degree, many potential students, especially those from lower income backgrounds, do not possess the financial resources to continue their education. Schools must work with other stakeholders to revise financial aid policies to cover PLA expenses.
  • 4. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the difficulties the nation faces when confronted with sudden economic challenges. Partnerships among schools, employers, and governments that incorporate PLA options prepare for, and build capacity to handle, rapidly changing conditions, benefiting students while maintaining academic quality.
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