Earning for prior learning

Miami Dade College has made an effort to bring awareness about opportunities for prior learning assessments to the community. (Photo: MDC)

The concept that “time is money” applies to the life outlook of community college students as much as anyone. Their success in completing a degree or certificate is often an equation that weighs their financial resources against how long they will need to finish.

Prior learning assessments (PLA), which award academic credit for students’ skills and knowledge acquired through work, the military and other experiences prior to enrolling, can help reduce that time frame and the resulting costs — which means the equation can add up where it might not have otherwise.

“It’s a way that colleges and universities and, in this case, community colleges meet people where they are and individualize their learning,” says Scott Campbell, vice president for higher education with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), which provides workshops, tools and services to help structure PLA programs. “They can eliminate some of the repeating and jumping-through-hoops aspect of the curriculum. … Adult learners tend to be very pragmatic, so saving time and money is at the top of their lists.”

The average student age at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington, is in the mid-30s, says Pamela LeMay, director of special academic programs. “That would suggest many are returning adults,” she says. PLA programs are “a welcoming way to bring people in who maybe have worked in industry, and even are interested in making a career change. They bring something with them to be validated, so that when they arrive, they aren’t considered the same blank slate as perhaps an 18-year-old high school graduate.”

PLA helps bond community colleges with industry to the extent that industry certifications are considered as part of a student’s portfolio, LeMay adds. “It keeps us relevant within an industry, and it also helps students be able to move more quickly through their programs and not deal with the redundancy of payment and time. … And, I just think it’s the right thing to do,” LeMay says.

Frances Turcott, director of special projects at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, says her college has encouraged PLA whenever it makes sense.

“We recognize that it’s a passport to a better life,” she says. “A student who earns this credit deserves this credit. We’re giving nothing away.”

Anne Arundel wants to move students along the path to a degree as quickly as possible. “They need to finish,” Turcott says. “Our military folks want to get as much credit as they possibly can for what they’ve learned. They don’t have the luxury of taking course after course.”

This article comes from the October/November issue of the AACC’s Community College Journal.

Community colleges in Florida provide PLA as guided by a state statute on the subject, says Jacqueline Hill, associate provost for academic affairs at Miami Dade College.

“You gain a lot of information, and knowledge, and skill sets and attributes that you typically will not acquire in a course or academic program,” she says. “That first-hand life experience can be very valuable. It’s also a way to help facilitate getting some students to come back to school and finish their degree when perhaps they may not have. It reduces the amount of time they have to spend in the classroom. It reduces the amount of money they have to spend on tuition.”

How PLA works

CAEL provides general principles on how institutions should set up PLA, starting with outreach at the onset because many adult learners don’t know such an option exists, a conversation with an adviser to introduce PLA in more depth, and a ballpark calculation of how long a given degree program will take — and how much that will cost.

But within this backdrop, Campbell notes that there is no one-size-fits-all method for putting such agreements into place.

“As much as we want to scale these things, at the foundation is a conversation between adviser and student,” he says. “When the adviser is confident in what PLA is, how it can benefit the student and can do some awareness-building with that adult learner, positive things can happen.”

Some institutions elect not to charge students for prior learning credit, seeing it as an upfront investment in student persistence and success. But that’s tougher for community colleges, Campbell says, given that they don’t have the same margins as, say, a private, four-year institution.

Institutions that have been successful with PLA often are the ones that proactively approach companies and other organizations in their areas, including the military, examine their training programs and recruit students, Campbell says. The military is a big example of an area that has some standardized training that can be easily quantified into credit hours, he says. “Aligning those learning outcomes within their particular programs helps to ease the transition from the organization into the institution.”

Different model

Like many colleges, Edmonds, which has offered PLA for at least 30 years, traditionally did so through a “portfolio model” in which students gave a general summary of their experiences, faculty evaluated that and decided how to measure it, and the end result often came in the form of elective credit, LeMay says. About 20 years ago, Edmonds moved to a “course equivalency model” in which students propose more specific “course challenges.”

The average Edmonds Community College student is in his or her mid-30s and brings prior learning and experience. (Photo: ECC)

Portfolio “is a wonderful way and process, but what I was observing is that it was very time-consuming, and a lot of returning adults really just wanted what they were bringing with them, and what they already knew and could demonstrate, validated through college credit, so they could sign up at the next level,” she says.

The course equivalency model involves evaluations by a specific instructor as to whether outside training matches well, and that assessment results in a decimal grade that’s figured into the student’s grade-point average.

“The departments that have really sat down and are very familiar with what the industry practices are, and are aware of industry certifications, make it very, very simple for someone who comes to our college,” she says. “That person can bring a certificate to us without having to go through other steps.”

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About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.