Credits to Credentials: Models for Acceptance of Credit for Prior Learning

Due to strong growth in the number adults looking for college credentials and other factors, competency-based education has become a major focus of the higher education community.   These adult learners often bring college-level competencies to the classroom gained from other sources, such as occupational and military training, community experiences, and independent study.  Increasingly, the question is no longer whether to award credit for such competencies, but how.  Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) is a critical component to raising the adult learners' postsecondary participation and attainment rates.

CPL Policies

Paul Fain from Inside Higher Ed describes competency-based learning as a process by which students earn credit for what they know, not where or how they learned.  The movement to facilitate degree attainment for prior learners is winning over backers in both parties.  The policy document released with President Obama's State of the Union address gave a not-so-subtle nod to competency-based education, calling on accreditors to value higher education models based on performance and results."  In the Republican response to the State of the Union, Florida Senator Marco Rubio stated that adult learners, who tend to be more reliant on online courses and degree programs that give credit for prior learning, should have access to federal student aid.  With droves of adult learners entering college with the aim of professional advancement, there is also discussion within the halls of Congress on how to validate that experience. 

Beyond government, the Lumina Foundation has backed moves by state legislatures and higher education systems to encourage the broader acceptance of prior learning credits.  The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation also has provided $3 million in grants to support MOOC credit and related research. 

Fain notes that that prior learning assessment and competency“based offerings overlap in many ways and, importantly, both challenge the reliance on seat time as the basis for college credentialing. Given this challenge to the established order, it is noteworthy that ACE is not fighting this trend, but embracing it.  According to Fain, The council says it wants more students to earn college credit for learning that occurs outside the college classroom.  Some of these credit pathways are trendy and new; others have been around for decades. 

ACE's recommendation 

With all these forces pushing in the same direction, it seems unwise to bet against the trend toward competency-based education continuing.  Under these conditions, it is critical to understand CPL.  

At AACRAO's recent Technology Conference held in Tucson, AZ, Dr. Chris Johnson, Regional Liaison for Education Attainment and Innovation and American Council on Education provided an overview of prior learning assessment. The session focused on ACE's credit recommendation review and strategies for building institutional engagement, including methods for engaging faculty and academic leadership.  

After the session, Dr. Dora Lee, Associate Registrar at Cal Poly Pomona, noted that Johnson's session helped to supplement faculty perspective and understand the complexity of prior learning credits."  Johnson relayed that he appreciated the engagement from the group, which described activities at institutions in support of student goals.  

Professionals within the higher community are sure to hear further discussion about competency-based credits and prior learning assessment at next year's AACRAO Transfer Conference, which will take place July 6, 7 and 8, 2014.  Reserve those dates to join AACRAO at the Marriot Harbor Beach in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.