Leveraging work experiences for college credit

Donald Strange will receive college credit for some of his work experiences that will apply toward an associate of applied science degree in highway maintenance management from Front Range Community College in Colorado. (Photo: FRCC)

Donald Strange, a 54-year-old public works employee and then manager, has worked on many roads during his 34-year career, but says that there was one particular road that obsessed him. It was a road not taken: that of pursuing a higher education degree.

Strange, whose formal education ended after dropping out of high school with a GED, rose over the years from patching potholes as a teenager to become the streets and code manager in Highland Village, Texas. While he had considered many higher education programs before, Strange says none seemed to be a good fit with a public works maintenance job or with his many personal and professional obligations.

But, Strange recently found a way forward. On May 11, he will graduate with an associate of applied science degree in highway maintenance management from Front Range Community College (FRCC), the first graduate of that new associate degree program offered by Westminster, Colorado-based FRCC.

A key part of what made the degree program both attractive and feasible to Strange was that it recognized the extensive skills he had gained over his career by awarding him prior learning credits toward his degree. Strange received 24 of 60 required credits for the associate degree program through a novel FRCC approach to prior learning credit (PLC) that used prior learning assessment (PLA) to map his experience in the field to classroom credit. That sliced the cost of his degree nearly in half and reduced the required time on a part-time schedule from four to two years.

“Without the PLC credits, I do not think I would have pursued this degree,” Strange says. “Without the PLA process, the thought of spending three to four years in pursuit of a degree at my age would not have appealed to me.”

Attractive opportunities

Awarding PLC can be the secret sauce to drive adult enrollment and credential completion at many community colleges, with clear evidence that PLC can boost enrollment, engagement and credential completion by ensuring that adults are not wasting time and money by taking courses in subjects that they have already learned, according to a recent study by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) that examined the use and impact of PLA on 232,000 adult learners outcomes at 72 postsecondary institutions over a seven-year period.

“The biggest take-away is that PLA — also known as credit for prior learning — can be a great benefit for adult learners,” says Becky Klein-Collins, vice president of impact at CAEL and co-author of the report. “In our study, earning PLA credit saved students time and money in earning degrees or other credentials, but it also seems to have an impact on completion itself. Adult students with PLA credit were far more likely to complete credentials.”

The study also found that despite reducing required degree credits, on balance higher education institutions likely earned more tuition dollars from adults learners with PLA credits because those students were more likely to persist and complete degrees than students without such credit, Klein-Collins says.

More on AACC Digital

The upcoming AACC Digital conference will offer two sessions with educators at two community colleges discussing the establishment and execution of noteworthy, recently launched educational programs that leverage the power of PLA and that can serve as a model for PLC/PLA adoption and expansion by other community colleges.

Register for the AACC Digital conference, which runs sessions each Thursday in May.

A May 20 session, “Connecting the DOTs: Educating an Industry,” will feature Nicholas Spezza, dean of instruction at FRCC, and Susan Baillargeon, the college’s director of highway maintenance management, discussing how FRCC established the highway maintenance management degree that Strange is receiving, a program that touts the ability of participants to obtain PLC.

The key to setting up a good PLC program at a community college, such as that employed for the FRCC program, is a trifecta of involving administrators who can do the necessary paperwork; skilled faculty and program managers who can build mechanisms to assess PLC and integrate it into programs; and involving stakeholders in industry and potential students to determine the demand for such programs and to ensure programs are appropriately tailored to industry and students demands, notes Spezza.

Enrollment in the highway maintenance associate program started in fall 2019; 50 students from eight states have enrolled, Baillargeon says. She says the course is completely online and could become nationwide in scope.

“There are 400,000 potential students nationally – we hope they come to us,” Baillargeon says

Using state and regional consortia

The second AACC Digital session, “Using Prior Learning to Benefit All: Two Collaborative Models,” scheduled for May 13, will feature two educators from Danvers, Massachusetts-based North Shore Community College (NSCC) addressing two different Massachusetts consortium programs that use different PLA/PLC methods to drive degree enrollment and completion.

Cristy Sugarman, executive director of NSCC’s Center for Alternative Studies and Educational Testing, will discuss efforts of the state’s 15 community colleges to create the Massachusetts Community College PLA Consortium (Massachusetts Consortium) to expand and promote PLA usage internally and to potential students.

Related AACC Digital pre-conference article: Earning credit for non-credit courses

In 2017, the consortium launched a website to provide one-stop shopping for students seeking credit for prior learning. The website: myexperiencecounts.mass.edu

  • Provides basic education about Massachusetts community college PLA.
  • Allows students to see what types of credits are available at which institutions for what types certifications and life experiences
  • Offers a prior learning “wizard” that students can use to receive a preliminary assessment of suitability for PLA/PLC
  • Enables students to submit portfolios and other documentation to support PLA to a PLC specialist at their community college of choice.

Sugarman, who notes NSCC has offered PLA/PLC programs for more than 40 years and now has 270 courses that are eligible for some form of PLC, says that the Massachusetts Consortium is helping to drive increased PLA/PLC usage. PLA credits awarded systemwide increased from 13,446 credits in fiscal year (FY) 2017, to 26,109 credits in FY 2020, Sugarman says.

Deeper dive

Joining Sugarman for the session is Heather Mayer, an NSCC staff member and project coordinator for the Northeast Regional PLA Consortium (NERPLAC), who will discuss that consortium’s establishment and efforts. NERPLAC, created in 2019 through a grant from the Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) and led by NSCC, is a partnership between Essex and Middlesex County community colleges, state colleges and universities, private colleges, workforce boards, employers and community-based organizations designed to promote and increase the use of PLA by member institutions and adult learners.

NERPLAC does so:

  • Through promotional campaigns to promote PLA awareness.
  • By routing responsive PLA inquiries through college contacts that start a conversation with the resident and begin the process of exploring PLA options.
  • Through education of community-based organizations and workforce investment boards and their career centers to explain what PLA is, what the benefits are, how they can recognize the potential of PLA in their clients/customers.

About the Author

David Tobenkin
David Tobenkin is a freelance journalist in the greater Washington, D.C. area.
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