Creating College Credit Policies That Validate Adult Learners

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This blog is the third in a series following the Supporting Adult Learners for Postsecondary Success convening, which took place in early October. In an effort to continue the important conversations surrounding adult learner success, we have invited guest bloggers to cover topics including adult financial aid, alternative credit accumulation, near-completers and additional financial supports for adult learners. This post comes from Iris Palmer, senior policy analyst at New America.

Khari is a 41-year-old father living outside of Nashville, Tennessee, who recently received an associate degree in business from a local community college. It was a journey 20 years in the making, he told us last month at the Supporting Adult Learners for Postsecondary Success convening. And one thing, over all of that time, made a difference to him: People on campus who were kind and supportive and made him feel like he belonged in college. People who knew his name. People who were helpful.

There are other ways to make adult students feel they belong in college. One of those ways is recognizing and providing credit for the learning they have acquired outside of the classroom. We know that adult students do better when colleges recognize the expertise and experience they bring to the classroom. And that makes sense. What sends a signal to students that they are college material more than knowing that the learning they already have is at the college level? Plus, it shows colleges acknowledge that college-level learning occurs outside of the classroom.

Two ways that colleges currently do this include prior learning assessment (PLA) and competency-based education (CBE). PLA is the process for evaluating knowledge and skills to award college credit for learning acquired outside of college. Usually, this credit is plugged into a traditional course of study. CBE measures student learning against a set of standards, without regard for time or location. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessments, often at a personalized pace.

Both recognize that students, particularly adults, don’t come to college campuses as blank slates. They have mastered concepts and skills over their lifetimes. At the same time, flexibility and the ability to accelerate their degree program are particularly appealing to these students. But right now, it is hard for innovation around credit accumulation to scale.

There are many reasons for that. Faculty can resist valuing the assessment of learning from experiences they didn’t provide. Knowledge of PLA policies and CBE programs can be lacking among students. Colleges can silo these policies and programs so they have limited growth potential. At the state or system level, data systems, reporting and financial aid policies can create barriers to this type of innovation.

Fortunately, states and systems are creating policies to increase the visibility and prevalence of alternative credit accumulation. For PLA, states and systems have worked to create unified policies around issues like credit equivalencies, assessment methods and fees so students know what to expect from one school to another. This helps states raise the visibility of PLA opportunities for students. Other states, like Indiana, have worked to pay for PLA through their financial aid systems.

There is a less established state policy landscape for CBE. The bills that have passed either partner with Western Governors University or focus on developing particular programs, like a Virginia law to create competency-based early education for teacher professional development.

Given how these methods help adult students earn a credential, it’s important to encourage their high-quality implementation across higher education. State and system policies can eliminate barriers and encourage replication, which will serve all students — particularly adults — better.

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