The big benefits colleges can enjoy by expanding credit for prior learning

The online offshoots of LSU and UMass are two examples of institutions taking Credit for X to the next level.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2020 around 19.5 million people were attending college and working toward credentials or degrees. By comparison, an astounding 39 million students had left college with some credit but nothing to show for it. That doesn’t even include the pool of workers and military members who may possess skills or certifications that could count toward postsecondary credit.

Cumbersome and siloed, institutions of higher education have built up grades-based barriers that prevent stopped-out learners from considering jumping back in. A group of heady institutions and education companies are working to change that by furthering what they call “Credit for X,” a term used to define competency-based education (CBE) and prior learning. Speaking at this year’s ASU-GSV Summit, they said colleges worried about enrollments while trying to build pipelines with employers should adjust their strategies and act in good faith to serve the missing millions.

“When we talk about Credit for X, what we’re really talking about is a world where all verifiable, high-quality learning can count,” said Lisa McIntyre-Hite, vice president of learning innovation at Guild Education. “We’re talking about an equity imperative, shifting that power dynamic from a university system where it’s only what you learn in the confines of a classroom that can be validated, and really thinking about how we expand that.”

Why is that so important? “The truth is that enrollment is down,” said Jon Caines, chief creator of opportunity and co-founder of software development firm Max-Grad. “Institutions need to stop looking at students coming right out of high school. They continue to decline. If you want to talk about diverse populations and address the equity piece, you need to address students with some college credits or no degree. Students are receptive to credit for prior learning. They save time and money—about 9-14 months and about $1,200 to $10,000.”

More from UB: Is competency-based education really the elixir higher ed needs to survive?

The panelists involved in the movement offered up working models of success, along with what might be on the horizon in Credit for X. Regardless of how each institution implements it, they said multiple stakeholders must be involved–from administrators to faculty–to help determine how and what constitutes prior credit. And any buildout must be far more public-facing to help bring back students or get new ones in the mix.

Examples of Credit for X success

Two institutions with strong online presences that have done well with prior learning are the University of Massachusetts Global and LSU Online. Nancy Salzman, the recently retired executive vice chancellor in the Partnerships Office for Applied Innovation at UMass Global, said its keys to its success were the early embrace of industry-recognized certifications and CBE vastly helping boost outcomes for a student population that averaged in the mid-30s. But she said faculty were really the drivers in figuring out what that “credit would look like.”

Starting with a small group of faculty and assessment leaders, they determined what constituted rigor and the “factors for high-quality training and learning,” leaning less on seat time and more on evaluation of overall skills and credentials. They also built out a transparent window for those interested in exploring programs.

“We have an electronic database, and any prospective student can see exactly what their training and their certifications are worth credit-wise,” Salzman said. “That database is public-facing. When an applicant applies, the coach they work with [asks] what trainings you have had, certifications and short courses, so they can determine possible credit.”

Like UMass, LSU Online knew that getting faculty buy-in was essential in building out Credit for X. Radhika Krishnadas, executive director of learning design and professional development, said they relied on a two-pronged approach to reach prospective students and generate a long-lasting model of success that started with instructors.

“One was industry-reputed certifications, which we could confidently take to a faculty member, the ones that faculty are well aware of the rigor,” she said. “We did the crosswalk for them. We presented them—literally on a platter–all the work. You just have to look at it, verify and approve. The other strategy was to find early adopters and advocates. For our construction management, the chair is really progressive. He’s willing to go to bat and educate faculty and say, ‘This is a good thing.’ That’s how we got started.”

When faculty understand the outcomes that students are four times as likely to complete an associate’s degree with prior learning and twice as likely to finish a bachelor’s with prior credit—they quickly become champions, according to Amber Garrison Duncan, Executive Vice President of the Competency-Based Education Network. She said that work takes time and a fair amount of sifting—“pick and shovel work”—but the payoff is great for both institutions and students.

“Our current system is based on time, on grades that don’t tell us what you know and can do,” she said. “Imagine that the average student walks in and has had prior learning experience. They’re bringing seven transcripts. If you’re coming to a system that has failed you seven times, why would you ever ask [about prior credit]? We’ve got to shift competencies to be the currency of learning, not credit hours. That means changing our data systems. Once that transcript comes in, I have to look at program-level competencies and understand what I’m giving you credit for. That right now is done mostly by hand in Excel spreadsheets. It’s not scalable. There are a lot of things that ed tech can do to automate this.”

Because of that 39 million, Caines agrees. He points to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning in helping address the scalability issue. “We need technology tools that are going to be robust enough to be able to handle that capacity. There are two major areas for innovation. One is lead generation. The second is streamlining assessment, to make it easier for students to follow the process.

“We help students understand what their options are for completion at the school that they once left. These are the classes you’re missing. This is what’s going to cost you. You’ve been out in the marketplace for X amount of time since you stopped out, [but] we can convert that to get you closer to that finish line.”

As for the future of Credit for X, panelists offered a few hopes and thoughts:

  • Emily Scheines, director of credit for prior learning at Guild Education: “The next frontier I get excited about is to expand the notion of credit in terms of recognition and the on-ramp onto other pathways. If we want there to be workforce training that gets college credit, we also want there to be learning that happens in the classroom that helps a person move up in a career while they’re at the same company.”
  • Krishnadas: “I am excited about working with my team to have a section within the course itself where we can say, ‘These are your course outcomes,’ but also a section called skills gained so that students can see for themselves what they’re learning out of each course.”
  • Caines: “We need to start building tools that are designed to help workers, learners, educational providers, employers and state agencies. Employers are really starting to turn their heads and say, we need to align our job descriptions to match the language of the educators.”
  • Salzman: “With Credit for X, we bring to the table not just K through 16 but also the employers who want to have corporate training and the industry associations that are behind the certifications. This is the perfect opportunity to bring everyone around the table.”
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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