In the 1975-76 Marylhurst catalog, the historical overview ends with these brief entries:

  • 1974: Transition from Marylhurst College, a college for women, to Marylhurst Education Center, a center of lifelong learning for men and women.
  • 1975: External Degree Program. Marylhurst is first in Oregon to offer an individualized degree program based on the student’s past experience and future goals.

The story underlying these simple facts is rife with the turmoil of organizational change and financial risk. At the very heart, however, is the tenacious spirit of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM), and their commitment to transcend insurmountable odds in the service of others.

Marylhurst campus - 1970s
In the mid-1970s, Marylhurst shifted from an all women’s college to a center of lifelong learning for both men and women.

By the mid-1970’s liberal arts colleges across the nation were becoming “endangered species,” with declining enrollments and increasing overheads – much as we are experiencing today. However,

…unlike many colleges which closed their doors rather than adjust, Marylhurst changed with the times, adapting to fill the void in lifelong learning. Like the mythical phoenix, Marylhurst College for Lifelong Learning emerged from adversity to a new life, providing adult learners…an alternative where none had previously existed (Marylhurst Catalog, 1980-82, p. 2).

This courage to discover a new and better way for Marylhurst to serve the community is as alive today as it was 40 years ago.

In 1974, the institution’s leadership embraced the innovations of adult learning theory (e.g., Mezirow’s Transformative Learning), and education as a function of social change (e.g., Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Rather than leave disenfranchised segments of the population out of the educational experience, Marylhurst took the pioneering step to open wide the opportunities for adults, and at the epicenter of this vision was Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), itself a burgeoning field that established assessment standards so students could have their non-college learning recognized at the college level and applied to their undergraduate degrees. This was a very radical proposition, and flew in the face of academia’s tradition of the “sage on the stage;” Marylhurst was one of the few colleges in the nation to make a commitment to this educational innovation.

Coincidentally, in 1975, the M. J. Murdock Trust was founded to promote innovation in higher education, and awarded Marylhurst a generous grant to support the transformation. The same year, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) formed to:

Advocate and innovate on behalf of all adult learners, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances, to increase access to education and economic security and to develop and provide effective services and tools. (

The stars were indeed aligned in the mid-1970’s to support Marylhurst’s transformation.

It’s not about the degree; it’s about your life

Through 40 years of sweeping social and economic change in the region and across the U.S., Marylhurst has sustained a rigorous yet resilient PLA program, recognized for our commitment to deep critical reflection and academic writing as a means for students to “make manifest” their experiential learning, and integrate that knowledge into their new learning for their undergraduate degrees.

Many students come to Marylhurst because they’ve heard of our PLA Program, and how it can expedite their undergraduate degree completion and decrease the cost of their education. We appreciate the importance of this and continually seek to increase the savings for students. However, our underlying commitment for PLA to be a transformative experience has not diminished; more students than not profess they’ve gained critical insight about themselves as learners, thinkers, and communicators through participating in PLA.

View what past participants had to say about their own experiences with Marylhurst’s PLA program:

It was really important to me with 30 years of professional experience to have some sort of validation of what I had done. I wanted a formal education, but I had learned a lot in what I had done, and it was important to get that acknowledged. ~ Shannon Coffel Vial, PLA 2015

Since 1976, when we awarded our first PLA credits, over 900 students have earned credit through our PLA Portfolio Program, earning an average of 24 PLA credits each – that’s over 23,000 credits awarded to students who convincingly documented “the connection between what they … learned in another setting and the theoretical foundation, knowledge and skills as defined by the course-specific learner outcomes of the credit awarded” (Higher Education Coordinating Commission, 2015, Standard 2.1).

The Next 40 Years

The future is full of promise for Marylhurst’s PLA Portfolio Program, and the national movement to increase opportunities to award credit for prior learning (CPL) continues to grow. In 2013, the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission (OR-HECC) developed CPL Standards for Oregon postsecondary institutions, and organized a three-year Pilot Project – of which Marylhurst is the only private non-profit institution – to help inform the HECC of the “promising practices and challenges associated with the implementation of the CPL Standards” (HECC, 205, House Bill 4059 Report).

As is true for any organization that strives to be on the leading edge of change, we are not immune to emerging social and economic challenges. All experts in the field of PLA are familiar with the constant challenge of communicating the many options and benefits of prior learning assessment to a profession with deep roots in its “sage on the stage” history; even after 40 years of research and application, there remains much skepticism about the rigorousness of PLA. Nonetheless, at Marylhurst we remain committed to providing our students multiple options for earning credit for their prior learning, taking great pride in our writing-intensive PLA Portfolio Program, as an expression of the University’s mission to educate the whole person, to serve the underserved, and engage in social action for community good.

PLA celebrates 40 yearsCelebrate with Us

On Thursday April 21, 2016 we will celebrate the 40th Anniversary of our Prior Learning Assessment Program at Marylhurst with an interactive seminar and reception.

To learn more about our PLA program, and other options for earning credit for prior learning, please contact Jackie Fowler in the Center for Experiential Learning & Assessment:


CAEL. (2014). Forum & news, 2014 – 40th-anniversary edition. Chicago, IL: CAEL.

Higher Education Coordinating Commission. (2015). Credit for Prior Learning House Bill 4059 Report: A Report to the Oregon Legislature. Salem, OR: HECC.

Lewis, L. H., and Williams, C. J. (1994, Summer). Experiential learning, past and present. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 62, Jossey-Bass, p. 5.

Marylhurst College. 1974-1982 Catalogs. Marylhurst, OR.

Birth of Prior Learning Assessment: 40 Years of Innovation at Marylhurst

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