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More adults earning college credit for ‘life experience’

When she was 40, Gloria Wagner's husband passed away. Overwhelmed with grief, she worried about how she would support her three teenage children. Her work options were limited. She had years of experience working as an accountant and some college credits from Purdue University, but no formal degree. If she wanted to increase her earning potential and improve her job prospects, she had to find a way to finish college.

But the resources required to go back to school felt like insurmountable challenges to the newly single mom. If she worked full-time and went to school part-time it would take several years to finish her degree. "I didn't have time to wait around," Wagner said.

Then the Indiana woman heard about a university just across the state line in Illinois, Governors State University, that allowed students to receive credit for life experience: skills they learned on the job, military service, even volunteer work. A student simply wrote an in-depth report outlining her skills and knowledge and then provided letters from supervisors to verify those skills. Once this was done the work could be assessed for college credit.

Wagner recognized this as a way to get through school, fast.

"I took two weeks off work over the summer and sat at the kitchen table and typed," Wagner said. In that time she completed reports worth 36 credits. Over the next year she took 18 credits in a traditional classroom and graduated with her bachelor's degree. From there she went into a master's program and ultimately sat for her CPA exam. Today she works as an executive for a Chicago-based non-profit organization. "I've tripled my earning power," she said. "I literally could not have done this without prior-learning (credits)," she said, "It's the best thing that ever happened to me."

In the United States, 30 percent of the adult population has no postsecondary education, according to 2008 figures from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a Chicago-based higher education advocacy group. In 35 states, more than 60 percent of the adult population does not have an associate's degree or higher.

While the cost of higher education is high, the cost of not going is even higher. College graduates can expect to earn 80 percent more than their peers.

Studies show that $100,000 spent on college yields a higher lifetime return than an equal investment in corporate bonds, U.S. government debt or hot company stocks, according to the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit.

But getting adults back into the classroom can be difficult. Many juggle multiple life roles while attending school: They are workers, parents, spouses and caregivers, said Jovita M. Ross-Gordon, professor of education at Texas State University. While adult learners' varied backgrounds provide them with rich experience, they are challenged in terms of allocating time and resources to school.

With that in mind, policymakers are on the lookout for techniques that draw more adults into higher education. Getting credit for life experience such as working in jobs, starting businesses, serving in the military and volunteering time is attractive to adults who want to go back to school but feel overwhelmed by what it entails. "To have their learning validated with college credit makes the thought of returning to school less daunting," said Pamela Tate, president of CAEL. Getting credit for things they already know saves adult students time and money, moving them through programs and into the workforce quickly.

Although innovative, prior-learning assessments have vocal critics. Some object to the idea that life experience is equivalent to class time. "It seems like a cheap way to get through," said James Nienow, a professor of biology at Valdosta State University in Georgia. Another issue is the absence of consistent standards for evaluating prior learning. "To assess the skills of students acquired elsewhere seems an imprecise task," Neinow said.

Credit for life

Credit for life experience has been part of the American higher education system since the 1970s. Traditionally, these credits were awarded in one of two ways: comprehension testing or accredited corporate training. In its newest incarnation, students receive credit through individualized portfolio projects that document knowledge in key academic areas. Documentation may include certificates, letters from supervisors and personal essays explaining key course concepts. Once the portfolio is complete, it is evaluated by a specialist and assessed a certain number of credits.

For example, Gloria Wagner noticed her school required a course in accounting with a microcomputer to graduate. Having spent most of her career in accounting, she was very familiar with the course content. Instead of sitting through four months of classes, she obtained the class syllabus and wrote a 20-page report on the key concepts. A former supervisor wrote a letter verifying her experience in this area. She obtained her credits in a matter of weeks.

Around the country more than 48 different institutions of higher learning offer students the option to earn credit for life experience. These institutions include small private colleges like Argosy University and large state schools like the University of Maryland. These schools, and several nonprofit organizations, administer short courses or seminars that show students how to present their learning in ways that ensure they will receive credit.

Giving credit for knowledge ensurse adult learners successfully complete degree programs, according to CAEL research. It found that students who apply for credit through learning portfolios are more than twice as likely to graduate from college. Additionally these students are able to earn their degrees more quickly than their peers, cutting an average of 10.1 months off their class time.

Time is money

Paying for college is a major concern for 54 percent of adult learners, according to Statnats, an Iowa-based higher education marketing company. Statnats reports that 47 percent of adult learners are interested in ways to complete programs faster than normal. Assessments of prior learning are an innovative way to address potential barriers to enrollment.

Shelly Stam, 44, of Rochester, N.Y., is pursuing a bachelor's degree in organizational management at Empire State College. Prior to enrolling in college, Stam, worked full-time at a home improvement store and part-time as the organizer of a support group for military families. Like Wagner, Stam has lots of experience, but nothing to prove it.

Empire State allows students to receive credit for life experience. Stam created five portfolios documenting her skills, including cost cutting, decision making and community organizing. Her portfolios were assessed for a total of 19 college credits.

A full-time load is 12 credits per semester. At Empire State students are charged $370 per credit hour. It would have taken Stam at least two semesters and $7,030 to earn 19 credits the traditional way. Instead she received her credits in a matter of weeks for a fraction of the cost.

Though rates vary by school, portfolio evaluations cost about $250 each. A student can be awarded a maximum of six credits for each portfolio they submit, CAEL president Tate said. "It works out to about $40 per credit hour," she said. By creating her learning portfolios, Stam saved herself at least eight months of school, not to mention about $6,000.

Stumbling blocks

Criticism of prior learning varies. In discussions of weaknesses of the credit for life models, Swedish researchers argued that it is not clear that prior learning in one context can be successfully transferred and have value in another context. For example, people may acquire knowledge about supply and demand in the course of their employment, but it does not follow that they understand micro-economics.

Another concern is that assessments of prior learning change what kind of learning counts. Does what Shelly Stam learned about decision making on the job at the home improvement store really count as higher education? Giving students the opportunity to earn credit for things they know, without strict guidelines for determining what counts and what doesn't, could dilute what it means to have a university education, critics suggest. "To accept the legitimacy of experiential learning is to expand the definition not only of college, but college credit," Valdosta State's Nienow said.