Panel Paper: CLEP Me Out of Here: The Impact of Prior Learning Assessments on College Completion

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Water Tower (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Michael Drew Hurwitz, The College Board, Angela Boatman, Vanderbilt University, Jonathan Smith, Georgia State University and Jason Lee, University of Georgia

A primary issue concerning policymakers and institutional leaders in higher education today is the overall low rate of college completion. A recent report notes that 31 million students who enrolled in college during the past 20 years left without receiving a degree or certificate (Shapiro et al., 2014). A number of policies have been proposed to improve current completion rates including reverse transfer initiatives, more structured course sequences, and encouraging full-time enrollment. Prior Learning Assessments (PLA) offer another appealing alternative to increase completion rates, yet research addressing this approach is sparse.

In this study, we contribute to the college success literature by examining the causal impact on postsecondary outcomes of one of the oldest and most utilized PLAs- the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). Of the approximately 100,000+ students who participate in CLEP each year, most differ markedly from those who participate in other PLAs, such as Advanced Placement (AP). CLEP test-takers tend to be non-traditional age students and nearly one-quarter are enlisted in the military. Our study incorporates more than 800,000 CLEP exams on 33 different topics taken between 2008 and 2015.

The small body of existing descriptive research on the CLEP suggests that CLEP test-takers perform better than their counterparts on a number of postsecondary outcomes (see Scammacca & Dodd, 2005 for a review); however, this research relies upon naïve OLS estimates and, as such, likely yields upwardly biased estimates of the program’s impact. Using a regression discontinuity design (RDD), we are able to overcome the selection bias present in earlier work on the CLEP. In our RDD framework, we exploit college-specific credit-granting policies that require minimum CLEP scores- usually a score of 50 on a 20 to 80 point scale- to earn college credit for the relevant course. We merge all College Board data to enrollment and completion data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).

We find that attaining a credit-granting CLEP score leads to a significant increase in the probability of earning a postsecondary degree. These results are most pronounced for students enrolled in associate’s degree programs and student subpopulations who have traditionally underperformed in the postsecondary system, such as veterans and independent students. Among four-year college-goers enlisted in the military and students older than 24, earning a credit-granting CLEP score increases the probability of bachelor’s completion by 2.6 percentage points. Associate’s degree completion rates increase by 7 to 9 percentage points for both of these two subgroups as a result of earning college-specific minimum CLEP scores. These findings are statistically precise and much larger in magnitude compared to most other programs designed to improve associate’s degree completion. They also have important policy implications, and suggest that a large PLA program with national reach, such as CLEP, has the potential to serve as one of the most cost-effective ways to increase degree attainment rates in the U.S.