Lifelong Learning Credits Becoming More Common at Universities

Credit for learning outside the traditional college course is getting more attention at the state level.

by / August 30, 2012 0

For more than 40 years, colleges and universities focused on adult learners have been offering credit for learning that takes place outside traditional courses.

But over the past two years, mainstream state higher education systems have changed their attitude about credits for lifelong learning, which is also known as prior or outside learning.

In June, the University of Wisconsin System announced plans to offer a flexible degree that allows working adults to earn some credit for what they already know and to start classes at any time. In another example, for the past 10 months a voluntary task force of Tennessee institutions has been working to increase awareness and training efforts about prior learning assessments. 

How do you measure life-long learning?
Colleges generally recognize four assessment approaches: national standardized exams, such as College Level Examination Program tests; challenge exams giving credit for courses that would otherwise be taken in the classroom setting; training programs, such as corporate and military training that the American Council on Education evaluates; and student-created portfolios.

"This is not selling credits and it's not giving away credits," said Gibson, from Tennessee. "If they cannot demonstrate that their learning is at the college level, they will not get the credit."

Here's a real-world example: At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, all students enrolled in the University Without Walls are required to take a junior year writing course, where they write about their outside experience and compile it in a portfolio. A number of faculty members assess the student portfolios based on a rubric.

"We're looking for that deep level of analysis and that deep level of reflection," said Cynthia Suopos, senior lecturer in the University Without Walls at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "If a student just says, 'I fired 20 people,' that just doesn't cut it for us. We're saying, 'What is the impact on the organization, and do you think that could have been prevented?'"

"What we're seeing is that there is a large increase in interest because everybody's very concerned about retaining students and making sure that students complete their degrees," said Nan Travers, director of collegewide academic review at SUNY Empire State College, which has been offering credit for learning outside the college for more than four decades. "This is now being looked at as a good practice in higher education."

In August, the Lumina Foundation, which strongly supports prior learning assessments, brought university systems together for a summit about policies and procedures concerning student assessments of prior learning. For the first time, Travers saw a large number of institutions engaged in these types of assessments.

The attitude shift appears to have ignited in 2010 with a massive study released by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, one of the leaders in helping higher education institutions develop effective practices for how lifelong learning is assessed. This study — covering more than 62,000 students across 48 institutions — helped legitimize college credit for outside learning in the eyes of the general higher education world.

Why higher education wants to give credit for prior learning

To help adult learners complete certificates and degrees, some state higher education systems are looking at assessments of prior learning. The 2010 study from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning found more than half of students with prior learning assessment credit earned a postsecondary degree in a seven-year time frame, whereas 21 percent of adults without the credit did so. On average, students with the credit saved between 2.5 and 10.1 months on time spent toward their bachelor's degree.

The promise of higher graduation rates, course completion rates and time-to-degree rates was attractive to states like Tennessee that are trying to increase graduation rates. 

"Our state goal is to meet the national average of degree attainment by 2025," said Jessica Gibson, director of college completion initiatives for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The national average is 55.5 percent for bachelor's students, while Tennessee's is four points lower, according to the NCHEMS Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis. "It's mathematically impossible for us to meet that goal if we only focus on traditional students."

With President Barack Obama's goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, the stage is set for prior learning to have a bigger role in degree programs.

"Students are bringing something to the table, and why not find a way to give college credit for it, as long as there is an approved standard — with a rubric with a process that fits into a college setting?" said Cynthia Suopos, senior lecturer in the University Without Walls at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "Why not give it a shot?" 

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.