Been There, Done That … Now to Get Credit Toward a Degree

Assessing what someone has learned from work and life experience to determine if it’s worth college credit

When Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland met in June with representatives from Boston businesses and the local community, four-year colleges, community colleges and the workforce system, he described the Vision Project, an initiative through the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education that aims to produce the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation. And he emphasized that this cannot be accomplished without encouraging adults, who may have dropped out of college long ago, to return to school and graduate.

The aim of the summit and others like it that have occurred around the country recently was to move individuals toward degree completion more quickly and efficiently, and to ensure that higher education is more adult worker-friendly. More and more institutions and state higher education systems are recognizing the significance of adult learners and the impact serving them can have on degree-completion rates.

Approximately 17% of adults in Massachusetts have gone to college but do not have either a two- or four-year degree, according to a report by the Lumina Foundation. Similarly, in the rest of New England, over 18% of adults in Connecticut and Vermont have some college but no degree. In Rhode Island and New Hampshire, the figure is just over 20%, and in Maine, it is over 21%.

The biggest barriers to returning to school for these working adults are generally time and money. One of the themes of the summit was unconventional ways to earn college credit, including a variety of ways to assess what someone has learned from work and life experience to determine if it is “college-level” and worthy of college credit. Taken together, these methods are referred to by educators as Prior Learning Assessment (PLA).

Some of these methods, such as College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests, Excelsior College’s UExcel examinations and faculty-developed course challenge examinations, are widely used and marketed to incoming students of all ages, and therefore more accepted across institutions. Other methods such as portfolio assessment have been offered at a smaller number of institutions and involve unique approaches which follow national standards promulgated by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). Still others, such as evaluations of corporate and military training by the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) and the American Council on Education (ACE), use standardized approaches that are accepted by more institutions but are often not counted toward majors and specific degree programs.

With technology rapidly changing the learning environment, however, all these methods are becoming more standardized and uniformly accepted. All are viable options for incoming students with experience in professional or work settings. Asking adults to take courses in subjects they have already mastered only makes the time and money barriers larger and more obstructive.

Freeland and Massachusetts Board of Higher Education Chair Charles Desmond referenced PLA  as an important method for offering credit for outside learning. For adult learners, PLA can make the difference between settling for the status quo and taking action to return to college. Hundreds of  colleges and universities in the U.S. award credit to students for knowledge and skills learned outside the classroom through PLA, which can include learning from sources such as the workplace, military service, volunteerism, massive open online courses (MOOCs), non-credit courses, and other forms of on-line and  independent study.

A 2010 multi-institutional study by CAEL revealed that adult students with PLA credits are 2½ times more likely to persist to graduation than adult students without PLA credit. This was true regardless of race, gender, age, income level or academic performance.

Despite these promising results, some have questioned the validity of prior learning assessments over the years—and with some reason, given that some colleges have created PLA programs on their own campuses with very limited resources, and with practices that have limited validity or rigor built into the process. There are also a few colleges that have taken advantage of learners and fostered bad practices, but CAEL’s research and history illustrate that assessments of outside learning can be done with validity and rigor.

CAEL was formed through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the early 1970s. The project was originally housed at the ETS Princeton, N.J., headquarters as a joint venture between the organization and 10 task force institutions, which included, among others, Framingham State College and the Community College of Vermont. The primary goal of the project was to identify and make more widely known best practices in the assessment of experiential learning, and to prove that faculty experts could agree on the level and number of credits to be awarded for student learning that had occurred outside a formal college classroom.

Extensive research conducted during the project concluded that it was indeed possible to accurately and rigorously assess learning that occurs outside the college classroom and determine if it is college-level. One method tested was portfolio assessment, where students compile a learning portfolio that documents what they know, at which point faculty subject matter experts evaluate the portfolio to determine if the learning is college-level and what level of credit award should be made.

Today, CAEL is a nonprofit organization with a broader mission to make it easier for adults to attain meaningful learning, credentials and work. Since 1974, CAEL has consulted with colleges and universities and trained faculty to assess prior learning for college credit. CAEL is the recognized national expert on the portfolio assessment method of PLA, and its Ten Standards for Assessing Learning are used by colleges and universities, as well as accrediting organizations, across the country.

CAEL has been partnering with the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) in efforts to expand awareness of PLA in New England. NEBHE has assisted by helping CAEL understand how postsecondary institutions in the region currently serve adult and nontraditional students. For example, NEBHE included questions about adult-focused programs in a survey of New England higher education institutions. Of the 26 responding institutions:

  • 8 offer programs that enable students to accelerate their progress toward a degree such as cohort-based models with five-week intensive semesters, and programs aimed at certificates and trainings at the graduate level
  • 14 offer distance learning, and 8 offer degree programs entirely online
  • 16 accept CLEP exams—standardized national exams intended to test general knowledge in areas such as history, languages, art, science and English
  • 10 accept DSST exams—subject standardized tests, originally designed for the military;
  • 3 accept ACE credit recommendations—ACE has evaluated many military, corporate, and non-profit trainings, and has then recommended them for college credit. For example, McDonalds’ Hamburger University offers training in business, management and leadership that have been evaluated by ACE for college credit.

Clearly, work needs to be done to make PLA available to more New England students. Especially with portfolio assessment, we have seen a need, not only in New England but nationally, to provide simpler ways to offer PLA to students and bring these services to scale.

To address this problem, CAEL launched in 2011, a web-based platform with expert faculty assessors to examine the content and breadth of students’ learning and determine credit recommendations. The service helps colleges and universities nationwide that do not currently offer a PLA program, those that need support for existing on-campus PLA programs, or those that have a need for a more streamlined and cost-effective process.

LearningCounts is already serving a number of New England colleges. CAEL’s partners include Southern New Hampshire University, Franklin Pierce University, Cape Cod Community College, Eastern Nazarene College, Fisher College, New England College of Business, Middlesex Community College (of Massachusetts), and Providence College School of Continuing Education. Already, more than 100 students from New England colleges have taken part in the LearningCounts service.  The service also engages adults not yet affiliated with a college or university through CAEL’s nationwide marketing campaign.

CAEL is also working on the policy front to advance PLA. At the federal level, the most important change would be the designation of PLA as an allowable expense under Title IV and the various GI bills so adult learners and veterans can use their financial aid resources to cover the costs of PLA. I recently testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, urging them to make this change. I also recommended that in the meantime, prior to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the Department of Education launch an “experimental sites” initiative which would allow a national PLA experiment to test ways to ensure the quality of the PLA process. Since the Department of Education already has authorization by Congress to undertake experimental sites initiatives, launching one on PLA would spur innovation at a much greater scale.

While this change in federal policy would have a great impact, state policy change is equally important for PLA to flourish. It is at the state level where systemwide PLA policy or legislation can encourage institutional investment in PLA while removing unnecessary barriers. In a 2012 publication, the policy consulting and advocacy firm HCM, together with CAEL, identified more than 20 states that have introduced or passed PLA legislation since 2008. Taking this kind of action at the state level can encourage institutions to move more rapidly on PLA, and can encourage the institutions to recognize PLA credits upon transfer to another institution within the same state system.

Another state policy approach that can provide momentum for PLA is the transition to a performance-based funding formula for supporting public colleges and universities—and this kind of funding formula is under active consideration in 33 states. Our national study from 2010 I mentioned earlier, which showed that students who begin a degree path with some credits awarded through PLA are 2½ times more likely to persist and graduate, has caused states to see PLA as one strategy to achieve greater rates of completion. We have already heard from institutional leaders that when they have incentives to graduate students, rather than just to enroll them, PLA moves up on the policy and practice agenda. In New England, Massachusetts has already determined that of its $24 million increase in FY 2013 funding for community colleges, $20 million will be distributed using a new performance-based funding formula. As of February, Maine was also engaged in formal discussions about performance-based funding, and others are on the way. This funding approach is already providing a new incentive for colleges in other parts of the country, such as Tennessee and Ohio, to adopt better policies and practices related to PLA.

The summit in Massachusetts culminated in an action plan for changing policies and processes that have hindered adults in their quest to attain a degree. I hope that individual institutions and other states within New England will join the growing chorus to make PLA available to more students. Our country, our higher education system, our employers, and the adult learners we serve can wait no longer.

Pamela Tate is president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Related Posts:

New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the Credit Hour

Credit Where It’s Due: NEBHE Survey Finds More Colleges Rewarding Prior Learning



Comments are closed.