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Adults Returning to College Can Take Advantage of Prior Learning Assessment

National Louis University's Tracy Costello shares tips to make college completion easier

As people cheer on relatives graduating from college, some of them (older than 25) might wish they too could earn their degrees. Tracy Costello of National Louis University has an important message to make it possible: they can use Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) to earn credit for life experiences.

PLA is an evaluation of college knowledge and competencies gained or acquired outside of the traditional classroom, said Costello, assistant director of Prior Learning Assessment at NLU. Through PLA, if adult students can demonstrate that they possess college course equivalent knowledge, they potentially can earn credit in lieu of taking the class.

“My biggest advice to future adult students is to inquire about Prior Learning Assessment  programs at institutions they are considering attending,” said Tracy Costello. “Studies indicate that students who earned prior learning credits are more likely to graduate than peers who did not. Since adult learners often have busy schedules and a tight budget, it’s important to know that PLA can save them time and money to earn a degree.”

Costello also has tips to share for adults contemplating a return to school.

Considerations for Adults Returning to College:

  • You’re not alone. More than 8.2 million adults (older than 25) return to college every year. In fact, the so-called “traditional” college student (attending college right after high school graduation) is the exception. The National Center for Education Statistics projects a 14 percent increase in college admission for students age 25 and older, compared to a 13 percent increase for students younger than 25. At National Louis,adult students are the majority, with the average age for undergraduate students at 34, and 36 for graduate students.
  • Financial aid is available to students of all ages. Students can apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what they qualify for. Grants and scholarships often are available for specific programs. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement programs if classes will help students/employees advance in their current jobs.
  • What adult students have learned so far in their lives/careers has value, and can earn them college credit. Take aPrior Learning Assessment or complete self-paced online courses that the American Council on Education recommends to earn college credit. National Louis University recognizes PLA as a means to earn credit for both General Education Elective and other Elective courses, as well as for some major courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
  • Students should consider what type of learner they are. Do they need to be in a classroom with peers to focus? Or do they learn better moving at their own pace online? In both situations, learners need to be committed and determined with good time management skills.
  • Inquire about flexible courses and learning environments. Whether online, in the classroom or via a blended learning environment of both online and in-class instruction, students often have the option of selecting a format that works best with their schedules. For example, if students work during regular business hours and need classes in the evenings or on weekends, many colleges can accommodate those schedules.
  • Start slowly. Many adult learners try to take on too much at first. If students have busy work and family schedules, take one general education course the first term. Then increase course load during the second term.
  • Accelerated programs often exist that allow students to have intense, short classes, but allow them to complete courses faster.
  • Students should ask advisors about resources like PLA, counseling, career development, student government, etc. to help them feel more empowered and make connections at their school.

More information about credit at NLU for prior learning can be found at

Research has shown that young adults with a high school diploma, but without a college degree, earn 62 percent of the typical salary of college graduates. Regardless of the earnings gap for individuals without a college degree, many adults have other motivations for returning to college, including that they want to advance in their current job, have better job prospects and/or want the personal satisfaction of earning a college degree.


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    (888) 658.8632
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    (888) 658.8632
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