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2014 January 6 - 12:00 am

POV: College Learning Can Come in Many Forms

John F. Ebersole

Despite the chatter, few recognize education by massive open online courses college credit-worthy and fewer still know the value of “badges,” either how they are obtained or how they should be recognized. Though both have dominated higher education media as ways to bypass more traditional methods of learning AND the need for degrees, the value and importance of a college degree has never been greater. The College Board’s 2013 report “Education Pays” is unambiguous in making the connection between levels of education and levels of income. Less than a high school diploma gets you, on average, a little over $20,000 a year. A bachelor’s degree more than doubles this, to $56,500.

The question shouldn’t be whether education pays, but rather how to pay less for it. Unfortunately, the public, most employers, and even many academics are woefully ignorant of the many proven ways that credit can be earned outside of traditional higher education and applied toward degree requirements, reducing time and cost. Here are some examples:

Credit Equivalency Determinations: We have known for decades that learning can and does occur outside of a classroom. What can be difficult is determining the equivalency of such “external” learning to college-level courses. The American Council on Education (ACE), working with faculty and subject matter experts from across the country, has perfected this process over four decades and now serves as the primary source for determining the college equivalency of most forms of military training. More than 1,800 institutions have agreed to consider ACE’s credit recommendations. In addition, New York State’s National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) provides similar assessments and recommendations for civilian employer training.

Independent Learning Assessments: Visual artists, writers, musicians, mechanics, project managers, chefs and many other types of professionals often accumulate knowledge from their work which may be relevant to the completion of a degree. Determining the amount and level of learning requires a formal process of assessment. With support from the Lumina and Gates foundations, and in cooperation with both ACE and New York’s NCCRS, the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has created a rigorous assessment process known as LEARNING COUNTS. It involves both coursework and assessments by university faculty. The number and level of credits recommended vary based on these assessments. Recommendations are converted to credit and transcripted by Excelsior College, one of America’s oldest credit assessment and aggregation institutions.

Credit-By-Examination: While The College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and its Advance Placement (AP) exams are perhaps the best known of the credit-by-examination sources, Regents College (predecessor to Excelsior) was the pioneer, offering such an option in the early 1970’s. Today, Excelsior, The College Board, and Educational Testing Services (ETS) all administer exams that can satisfy degree requirements upon successful completion. Excelsior has 60 such exams divided between the lower and upper divisions. These not only satisfy many degree requirements but also can be used to complete entire associate and bachelor degrees in business and the liberal arts. Exam performance is transcripted by Excelsior and assists in acceptance upon transfer.

There are many reasons why an institution and its faculty should consider acceptance of credits earned through these processes. They include:

  • Reduced cost to the student
  • Reduced time to credential
  • Improved institutional graduation rates

This third point comes from research jointly conducted by CAEL and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS). Those students receiving credit for prior learning were found to be two-and-a-half times more likely to complete their degree than those who did not receive such credit.

In 2012, Excelsior accepted more than 600,000 credits in transfer. These came from other academic institutions, ACE, NCCRS, CAEL, and credit from examinations. Had it been necessary for students to re-earn these credits through coursework, it would have cost them more than $230 million (at Excelsior’s rates) in tuition alone.

Degrees still matter. So do the credits which go into them. We in higher education need to support the older, post-traditional students who bring experiences and prior learning to their degree completion work. With 93 million experienced adults already in the workforce without a degree of any kind, we have our work cut out for us.

John F. Ebersole is president of Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., one of the oldest accredited, private, nonprofit distance education institutions in the country. In his 25-year career in higher education, Ebersole’s personal experience as a post-traditional student has informed his approach to adult education. He has held teaching and management positions at John F. Kennedy University and Boston University as well as management positions at the University of California – Berkeley and Colorado State University. A retired Coast Guard commander and Vietnam veteran, Ebersole began his college education while in the military. In addition to being a graduate of the Naval War College, he earned a doctorate in law and policy from Northeastern University; an EdS from The George Washington University; and master’s degrees in both business and public administration from John F. Kennedy University. He has served as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he conducted research into innovation in higher education.

It’s Your Turn:  CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: Should your college grant credit for prior learning?
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Also from John F. Ebersole, President, Excelsior College

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