Credit  for  Prior  Learning:  Why  All  the  Controversy?

June 17, 2014

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Deborah Seymour, former ACE assistant vice president for education attainment and innovation, looks at the debate over new tools for college completion.

Prior learning assessment. Life experience credit. Transfer credit. Advanced placement credit.

The higher education community increasingly is searching for ways students can reduce the time it takes to earn a college degree or credential.

Opinions about the available tools for speedier time to completion vary widely, from the push to offer all available options to learners (such as Advanced Placement credit, College Level Examination Program exams, Prior Learning Assessment portfolios and ACE credit recommendations) to the position that no form of credit for prior learning should be accepted at all. This is a debate with important academic and business model ramifications for American higher education.

A critical part of the conversation needs to examine the link between national goals for college completion and allowing students to use these tools. The United States lags behind other world economies in its percentage of college degree holders (40 percent of adults above the age of 25; twelfth among OECD nations), while it is forecast that over the next decade, 65 percent of jobs will require some postsecondary education and training.

Many believe this is a crucial reason why American higher education should accept multiple forms of credit for prior learning: so a larger percentage of learners will have the opportunity, and desire, to enroll in postsecondary education and complete a much-needed degree.

Others disagree, believing that acceptance of credit for prior learning downgrades the quality of the degree awarded and impacts the academic freedom of faculty who should be teaching and assessing all student learning. Even in the case of transfer credit from another college or university, many faculty members feel that they cannot obtain sufficient information about the courses represented to award them equivalency.

Whether you buy into that or not, a new argument has surfaced for why credit for prior learning should not be accepted. The argument goes something like this:

Let’s stipulate that the average four-year degree requires 120 semester hours. If a college accepts any form of credit for prior learning, its students will not need to complete all 120 hours there to graduate. As a result, less tuition will be collected. Hence, in order to earn all the revenue possible from each student, postsecondary institutions should not accept any credit for prior learning.

The argument attempts to go to the heart of the business model of higher education: No 21st century institution of higher education, whether it is public or private, whether it has an endowment or not, whether it is eligible for federal student financial aid funds, can survive without tuition dollars.

On the other hand, more students persist and complete their degree if they can bring with them some form of credit for prior learning—and their institution accepts the credit. Indeed, if an institution accepts credit for prior learning, that can mean up to a 100 percent increase in graduation rates, according to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Many experts believe that acceptance of prior learning credits will actually lead to more students enrolling in the first place.

So does the acceptance of prior learning actually lead to less or more revenue for colleges and universities?

We don’t know yet, because no one has really researched the impact on institutions’ bottom lines. This research, while not easy, is necessary. While we strive for higher completion rates, consumers, government and higher education institutions all could use the answers.

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