Yesterday I wrote about the 5 Hidden Costs of Early College Graduation, which can include potential problems securing internships, lower academic performance due to overwork, and possibly making an incorrect or hasty decision about your major and future career. However, for students who are sure about what they want to study and the career they are interested in, early graduation is still a strong option—and turning prior work experience or knowledge into academic credit is one way to achieve that goal.
What is Prior Learning Credit?
Prior learning credit, which many schools used to call “Life Experience Credit,” is awarded to students for work they have completed outside of academia. It has recently gained currency partly because the notion of the traditional “credit hour” as a measurement of learning or curriculum goals has come under fire because of the changing nature of higher education. A “credit hour” no longer necessarily means sitting in a classroom with other students for a prescribed amount of time, but can instead be achieved through different means, such as online education. New approaches such as online education have made educators take a second looks at prior learning.
It’s not a new idea, either. As Paul Fain noted on Inside Higher Ed in May, this option has a long history: “The practice of granting college credit for learning and knowledge gained outside the traditional academic setting goes back decades, with roots in the G.I. Bill and World War II veterans who earned credits for military training.” Similarly, Anya Kamenetz pointed out that, “The American Council on Education’s Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT), the largest national program making credit recommendations for workplace and other training, dates to 1974.”
Prior learning credit is based on a student’s experience with a skill or topic that was gained outside of the college and mastery often must be demonstrated through a college-administered assessment or review, such as the Prior Learning Assessment offered by the University of Phoenix. Some schools require students to produce a portfolio of materials demonstrating their mastery of the subject as well.
Schools that decide to offer the option of prior learning credit must themselves go through a thorough assessment of the standards by which they offer such credit and are often monitored by their accrediting boards to make sure that all such credit offered is done so fairly and legitimately. For example, the University of Wisconsin System wrote a self-assessment of their prior learning credit program, which can be read here and shows the lengths to which colleges go to ensure that the credit they offer for prior learning meet the same standards as traditional college credit.
This week, Paul Fain again reported on the subject on Inside Higher Ed, and noted that schools are currently awarding credits for what is called “prior learning” more frequently than they have in the past. He outlines the different ways these new initiatives have emerged and the forces behind them:
- Advocacy groups including the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Complete College America have spearheaded new legislation in some states that allows public colleges and universities to create standards and opportunities for prior learning credits.
- Colleges and universities themselves have begun such programs even without a push from private organizations.
- U.S. Labor Department job training grants for displaced workers include a requirement that college receiving these grants offer prior learning credits to such students.
The increase in the number of students seeking and the number of institutions awarding prior learning credits can possibly be traced to the economic recession that began in 2008, and the resultant unemployment that left workers scrambling to transition to new careers. The rising costs of college have also forced students to seek ways to graduate more quickly and save on student loans. That means that there are more non-traditional students who have decided to enroll in a college degree program after working in a profession for many years, and more students trying to consolidate entire academic programs into shorter time frames.
Concerns about Prior Learning Credit
Yet some worry that the push to expand programs and opportunities for students to earn academic credit through prior learning is merely an attempt to shore up degree-completion rates. Education professor Gary Rhoades told Inside Higher Ed that “The push to expand prior-learning assessment as a new innovation in a rush to ‘complete’ reduces accountability to simply counting more completers, faster. It cheapens a college education, cheats the student and society, and prioritizes stamping students as certified over providing them with a quality education.” He fears that prior learning credit programs are driven more by institutional needs to produce more graduates than focused on student needs to learn required and crucial content.
Further, Steven D. Krause, who teaches writing at Eastern Michigan University, argued on his blog that “The problem with prior experience is you have to actually have prior experience.” This means that students who enroll in MOOCs (massive open online courses) or apply for credits based on experience that is difficult to prove is equal to a traditional course may have difficulty documenting prior learning credits.
How Can You Get Prior Learning Credit?
Every school has a different process for assessing prior learning and awarding credit for it, such as the University of Phoenix’s process I mentioned above. The first thing to do is read your college’s catalog or website thoroughly for information regarding prior learning credit. Then, speak with an admissions counselor or, if you are already enrolled, your academic adviser. They will point you in the right direction academically. But it’s also a good idea to speak with financial aid to find out if any reduction in the number of classes you will take will affect your financial aid eligibility of enrollment status.