Credit for Prior Learning as an Equity Lever

ASCCC Treasurer, ASCCC CTE Leadership Committee Chair
CPL Workgroup Co-Chair, CCCCO Educational Services and Support Division
Foundation for California Community Colleges, CPL Workgroup Member
Palomar College, CPL Faculty Lead Business

Edwin served in the United States Armed Forces for 13 years, including as a member of the Airborne Division for 15 months in Operation Iraqi Freedom and one year in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He also worked as a recruiter in New York City for three years. After serving his country, Edwin enrolled in a California community college and was awarded credit for his broad military training. As a result, he earned two associate degrees in one year, enabling him to save time and money and advance his career.

The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASSCC) is committed to improving student outcomes and closing achievement gaps. As the California Community Colleges system commits to dismantling systemic racism and advancing economic mobility for all Californians, faculty play a key role in sharing, learning, and advancing practices to achieve these goals through activities and efforts such as the granting of credit for prior learning (CPL). Credit for prior learning is an evidence-based, transformative strategy that awards college credit for knowledge and skills gained previous to enrolling in college. It can help students fast track their certificates and degrees, enabling them to more directly pursue their chosen careers. CPL is defined by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (2020) as “college credit awarded for validated college-level skills and knowledge gained outside of a college classroom.” Skills and knowledge can be obtained through means both formal—such as testing, workplace training, or military training—and informal—such as volunteer work or independent study. When such skills and learning are assessed by faculty and determined to be equivalent to the articulated outcomes of a college course, students may be granted course credit under Title 5 §55050.

This strategy is critical to supporting the community college system’s Vision for Success goals, especially to increase completion and close equity gaps. Research confirms that students who earn CPL are more likely to complete, saving tTable 1ime and money to degree, with findings true across ethnicity, gender, age, and socioeconomic status (Success Center for California
Community Colleges, 2019). In California community colleges, this process not only benefits students but also colleges that are rewarded for completions through the Student-Centered Funding Formula. CPL can also be a tool for colleges to boost enrollment and attract some of the 6.8 million Californians ages 25-54 who have a high school diploma but not a college degree. More than 79% of those who are employed are working nearly full-time, and the prospect of getting credit for the skills and knowledge they have gained in life experiences could be
the signal they need to feel like they belong in college.
Most importantly, more than half of these individuals are people of color, making CPL a valuable lever to increase equity. Data shows that attainment of degrees is an impactful lever for economic mobility, which makes CPL also an important strategy for California’s competitive workforce.



Equity is “the condition under which individuals are provided the resources they need to have access to the same opportunities as the general population. Equity accounts for systematic inequalities, meaning the distribution of resources provides more for those who need it most. Conversely equality indicates uniformity where everything is evenly distributed among people.” (Equity Definition, n.d.). At the community college level, the term refers to any disparity in a metric like success, retention, or access among various demographic groups. These gaps should lead colleges to ask, “What processes, policies, strategies, etc. are in place that create or exacerbate these disparities?” rather than “What is the student doing wrong?” (Perez, 2019).

California community colleges are poised to create an ecosystem to achieve equitable outcomes for minoritized students and close the gaps in educational attainments. As colleges begin thinking about the state’s economic recovery and connecting displaced workers to career pathways, academic senate leaders are asked to interrogate what has changed already as a result of the pandemic and the racial unrest being experienced as a nation. They should ask how the workforce will be different in the future, how the online environment will leverage equity among various demographic groups given that everyone must now be doing so much online, and whether advisory groups can be invigorated to look at future and present skills and to fast-track credit for prior learning for students given that the business world has changed and that curriculum will take some time to meet the future demands.

Students’ diversity is not only reflected in their gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status but also in the knowledge and skills they bring from their prior learning experiences in business, arts, applied sciences, military, and other pursuits. These students and others can both benefit from and contribute to a community college education. The Academic Senate has long championed in resolutions the concept of granting credit for prior learning as a student success strategy. [1] Local academic senates can play a key role in institutionalizing strategies by building discipline faculty engagement in CPL and focusing on it as part of the academic senate’s work. This focus includes the development and implementation of college or district policy as required by California Code of Regulations Title 5 §55050. By December 31, 2020, districts must approve policies governing CPL at their colleges. Recently, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office published a CPL toolkit to provide resources and examples to implement CPL. The toolkit encourages districts to adopt policies centered on equity. A number of colleges have already made tremendous inroads with equity-focused CPL practices.


Through the four pillars of guided pathways, California community colleges are making strides to clarify educational paths for students, help students find a path, help students stay on the path, and ensure students are learning. Technology, in particular, is deployed to help students stay on track and be engaged in contextualized learning that will help them advance a career in a fast-changing economy. Palomar College is leveraging Portfolium as a platform for students to showcase their prior learning and earn CPL. Palomar students may use Portfolium, a free tool integrated with Canvas, to showcase their academic work, achievements, projects, and skills and connect to various social media outlets for academic and career opportunities across all disciplines.

Palomar was also a leader in developing a crosswalk process that compares competencies that students achieved in prior learning experiences to student learning outcomes in aligned courses. Creating crosswalks enables more equity and consistency in credit awards for students and prevents faculty from reinventing the assessment wheel every time a student comes in with identical prior learning experiences like an industry credential or public service academy. Several crosswalks were developed in a statewide pilot—in fire science, automotive technology, and business, for example—and are available for download from the Vision Resource Center CPL community at Faculty are encouraged to adopt these crosswalk recommendations at their own colleges, build out new crosswalks in other disciplines, and share them across colleges.

Several California community colleges have significantly advanced CPL as an equity initiative, and one thread is common across all: meaningful involvement of faculty in student-centered practices. Those colleges, like Palomar, that are already helping students have faculty that are committed to equity and committed to saving students time and money by granting credit for what they already know and can do. Faculty have helped uphold quality and rigor in assessments, ensuring that credit is granted for skills and knowledge, not experience. Expanding CPL relies on faculty commitment to the principle that meaningful learning aligned with course outcomes can take place outside of their classroom walls.


Local academic senates and faculty leaders are called upon to institutionalize and operationalize
CPL by doing the following:

  • developing or joining a senate sub-committee, taskforce, or workgroup to advance CPL.
  • getting involved in local policy development. Every district must create a policy.
  • encouraging wide stakeholder engagement for successful implementation.

Edwin’s story is a powerful reminder for faculty and college leaders about who benefits from credit for prior learning. Colleges and the state win when students reach their educational goals, and faculty and colleges are here for the millions of students with valid prior learning experiences, from the firefighter who needs an associate degree to advance to a leadership position to the IT professional with industry credentials who is competing in an increasingly globalized economy and many others. Thoughtful assessment of prior learning is an important strategy to achieve equitable educational outcomes for students young and old and from every walk of life. CPL helps encourage students with life experience to enroll, and classrooms are enriched with such students in them.


California Code of Regulations Title 5, Section 55050. Retrieved from

California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. (2020). Credit for Prior Learning
Implementation Toolkit. Retrieved from

Equity Definition. (n.d.). Www.Naceweb.Org.
Equity and equality are not equal. The Education Trust.

Perez, A. (2019). College Readiness: A Two Way Street. Retrieved from….

Success Center for California Community Colleges. (2019). Credit for Prior Learning Initiative:
Findings and Recommendations to Expand Credit for Prior Learning as a Vision for Success Strategy.
Retrieved from….

1. See. For example, Resolutions 09.05 Fall 2008 Ensuring the Integrity of Credit by Exam Processes, 09.08 Fall 2010 Credit by Exam Processes, and 14.01 Spring 2014, a resolution to adopt the paper adopt the Paper Award Credit
Where Credit is Due.