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Institutions Can Actively Court Students with Alternative Credit Options

The key is to offer multiple approaches and active guidance

April 14, 2022

In my last post, I wrote about steps institutions could take to recognize more credits in transfer by rethinking objectives and policies, helping tame the costly and time-consuming “transfer swirl” so fewer credits are lost and more students can complete degrees. This time I’d like to focus on another way to connect people with degrees: recognizing credits from alternative learning sources.

Often, those who might most benefit from earning a bachelor’s degree are least able to afford the cost in both time and money. Some are adults with years in the workforce and families to take care of. Others are recent high school graduates from low-income backgrounds.

To help make higher education more accessible for students from diverse backgrounds, institutions need to carve out more effective degree pathways for these students. They can do so by providing multiple ways for students to receive credit for prior learning, embedding alternative credit sources into their degree programs, and actively marketing these opportunities to prospective students. After all, if a student has acquired college-level knowledge and skills through work experience or learning in other settings, why shouldn’t that be a legitimate building block for fulfilling degree requirements?

Actively award credit for prior learning

There are already significant and worthwhile efforts underway to increase recognition of the prior learning a student brings to a degree program. Portfolio assessment, for example, which takes into consideration relevant work products and experiences, is at the forefront of many of these initiatives. It can save nontraditional students a year or more in classes and thousands of dollars in tuition as they earn a bachelor’s degree. This effort can also provide a psychological boost, as students see their time in the workforce recognized as a legitimate learning experience that counts toward a degree.

The process of getting that credit recognized, however, can be daunting. Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), generally synonymous with portfolio assessment, requires the student to write an intensive narrative reflecting on the educational relevance of their experiences, provide evidence to support the narrative, and have a basic understanding of learning theory to connect all the dots. These requirements make portfolio assessment impractical for a large number of nontraditional students. Many institutions even offer a portfolio assessment course to help students go through this process.

Recognizing the sometimes cumbersome and intimidating nature of the current portfolio assessment process, CAEL, a recognized leader in the field, recently moved away from the term “prior learning assessment” and is now using “credit for prior learning.” This useful new nomenclature expands options beyond portfolio assessment to include standardized exams, military learning, open-source learning, and industry certifications, among other avenues of recognizing prior learning.

That’s an excellent step. Institutions should offer credit for prior learning through a variety of methods: exams, practicals, interviews and more, letting students pick the mode that best suits them. After all, students have already completed creditworthy learning. The assessment process shouldn’t become a course’s worth of work unto itself.

But institutions need to take this a step further. Beyond recognizing these approaches as valid for measuring prior learning, we should also recognize them as valid avenues for active learning.


Actively offer students alternative credit sources

In other words, institutions can do more than award credit for prior learning – they can offer students alternative ways to earn credit over the course of a degree program. The ACE Alternative Credit Project attempted a version of this from 2015 to 2018. The American Council on Education connected 52 colleges and universities to six low- or no-cost alternative education providers, from which the schools agreed to award credit for certain courses. A final report from ACE recommended that similar programs offer “clearer guidance” to students on how to leverage alternative credit in their education pathway. It also recommended institutions dedicate greater resources to increase visibility of alternative credit options to prospective students.

With these learnings in mind, colleges that recognize alternative credit options should explore ways to reduce time and cost to degree by proactively advising students on their options. For example, each student should receive an easily understood degree roadmap that explicitly lists what alternative credit options can be used to fulfill a course requirement, along with a brief description of the credit source and the cost. College should also provide required alternative credit guidance sessions for all incoming students. Advisors should walk students through their options and create course schedules that incorporate both institutional courses and alternative pathways. They should also consider the individual learning style of each student, recognizing that not every alternative credit source will be a good fit.

By embedding alternative credit options in a degree program, colleges may be able to increase completion rates for students who might otherwise become part of the 36 million Americans counted as having “some college, no degree.” And they may attract new students who would otherwise pass on college altogether, viewing it as unaffordable or just not the right fit.

But these students need guidance. The amount of alternative credit available, along with significant variations in institution policies on the acceptance of such credit, leaves students in the lurch on how to even start exploring their options. Higher education has something to learn from modern dating apps that present users with an abundance of potential dates they can quickly scan to find a match. Colleges should show students a similar abundance of credit pathways that match their student profile, making it simple to identify those that fit their needs.

Turning a date into a healthy long-term relationship takes time and effort. So does getting a degree. No dating app and no alternative credit policy can change that fact. But there’s plenty that can be done to help people hit the ground running with rigorous but creative approaches to awarding and earning alternative credit.

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