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In the Spotlight:
Tracy Costello, Assistant Director of PLA

September 16, 2013

ul 9.16.13 by Mark Donahue

NLU has long had a commitment to serving the adult learner — and for 35 years it has also been a leader in helping these students leverage their life experience to attain a degree quicker and with less cost.

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) at NLU has played an integral part in the adult learner's educational journey since 1978, when the University was one of the first in the area to offer "life credit," said Tracy Costello, the office's Assistant Director. Through PLA, the University evaluates knowledge and learning gained by students in their lives outside the traditional classroom — including career experience, military service and volunteering, among others — to award them credit toward their formal education.

Costello came to NLU in 1998 with a background in higher ed counseling and administration, having worked only with traditional-age students at two other colleges in the Chicago suburbs. She started out part-time but after teaching just one PLA class quickly found new inspiration, eventually joining PLA full time in 2002.

"I was hooked not only by the class, which I found very intriguing, but being with the adult learner, which was something I had never thought about," she said.

Over the past three decades, PLA has served thousands of adult learners at NLU through a number of options, including awarding credit by examination, by proficiency, by licenses/certifications and by portfolio. All of these follow national and Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) standards, ensuring that all credit received has been approved by NLU faculty and/or is American Council on Education (ACE) recommended credit, Costello said.

Thirty full-time and adjunct faculty members work with Costello and Karen Sadowsky, Student Success Advisor, as part of PLA efforts. The faculty assists with all essay evaluations to determine credit awards and provides academic support when needed. Annual training is given to faculty as well as one-on-one training for all new evaluators. PLA also has an advisory board that meets several times a year and provides support and recommendations.

NLU was recently included in a study by CAEL of more than 40 schools across the country, which showed that adult learners who use prior-learning programs were more likely to stay in school and graduate (and graduate sooner) than those who did not. Prior-learning programs were also shown to reduce the total cost of studies for these students.

Beyond these time and cost savings, which she said remain big selling points of PLA at NLU, Costello has also seen how the portfolio process, in which students recount their life experience, can become something transformational.

"We will get a number of calls and emails every year saying how [students] never thought they'd take this portfolio class, and then when they had to write their autobiographies and papers that were personal, it was kind of a cathartic experience for them, and they were able to grow and get through in their learning," she said.

For the new academic year, Costello will continue to reach out to students who've never used PLA before but could. This recently was expanded to include those in the new Criminal Justice program. She's also seen a big jump in the number of students taking advantage of online options through PLA, with two online portfolio classes already full for the fall term.  

Costello still finds great inspiration in NLU's adult learners, who have always impressed her with the way they can put aside whatever they have going on in their lives, good and bad, and come to class.

"It such a rewarding job that I have," she said. "It's creative in that it allows me to instruct students and work with them on their writing and help them solve problems as to how to get to that degree completion. But the big reward is when they finish and knowing how hard they work at it. The students are my reward. I think it's incredible."


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