Extra Credit - How 6 colleges grant alternative credits

Inside Higher Ed | May 24, 2017 - How six colleges that are leaders in adult education calculate and capture alternative learning credits. 

Prior learning evaluation, especially of alternative credits, is expensive and time consuming, even for adult-focused colleges with extensive programs for awarding such credits. A study by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) provides an understanding of how six institutions that cater to non-traditional students effectively address alternative credits. 

“As long as the student can provide the right documentation of the credential, we will determine how to best evaluate it,” said Nan Travers, director of the Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning at the State University of New York Empire State College, one of the institutions in the report. 

The study was commissioned by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission and The Presidents' Forum, with funding from Strada Education. It was conducted by Jill Buban, OLC's senior director of Research & Innovation.  The institutions included in the Alternative Credentials: Prior Learning 2.0 report are:

+ American Public University System, Charles Town, W.Va.

+ Charter Oak State College, New Britain, Conn.

+ Excelsior College, Albany, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.

+ Rio Salado Community College, Tempe, Ariz.

+ SUNY Empire State College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (see inset image)

+ Thomas Edison State University, Trenton, N.J.

“Saving time and money during college is a big piece” of why alternative credits are important to non-traditional learners, said Marc Singer, vice provost of Center for the Assessment of Learning at Thomas Edison State University. “If you ask the students, that’s what it’s really about.”

The six colleges have their own ways of serving students who possess alternative credentials, but several themes, which are outlined below, emerged from the study.

Prior Learning Assessments

The six institutions have rigorous prior learning assessment (PLA) programs that allow for the evaluation of formal learning such as military training, corporate training, American Council on Education (ACE) credit and college transcript review as well as informal learning such as on-the-job training and volunteerism.

For instance, APUS uses a combination of internal and external PLAs. External assessments include ACE recommendations, college-level entrance exams and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and massive open online courses (MOOCs) that were pre-evaluated by ACE.

SUNY Empire State has a PLA program to evaluate, verify and transcribe all types of college-level experiential learning. Students, who can have their knowledge evaluated through the individualized PLA process, must demonstrate that there was college-level learning contained within an experience to be awarded credit.

SUNY Empire State as well as three other institutions in the study are founding members of the newly formed Consortium for the Assessment of College Equivalencies (CACE), which provides students access to the credits from training, certifications and licenses, granted according to evaluations conducted by the member institutions.

The amount of prior learning experiences that the six adult-friendly colleges evaluate is extensive, the study found. For instance, Excelsior College, with an average student age of 37, has more than 70 policies pertaining to prior learning credits. Its credit by evaluation program, UExcel, allows students to take competency exams for 34 courses, and a documenting program called OneTranscript lets learners combine transcript credits from a variety of sources.

In addition, Excelsior offers credit for professional software certification tests from Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco. The college outsources its portfolio evaluation to the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning’s (CAEL) LearningCounts program.

Thomas Edison State University conducts both internal and external assessments and like Excelsior, uses LearningCounts for portfolio assessments. Thomas Edison accepts most ACE and National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) recommendations and ones through the new CACE group, which reviews training programs licenses and certifications. It is also involved in the Lumina Foundation’s Connecting Credentials program.

“It really comes down to whether you can demonstrate that you have a mastery of what you would have learned in the course, not just that you had a job where you probably learned it,” Singer said.

At Rio Salado, administrators rely on ACE credit recommendations and national exams. It also accepts credits from 30 courses offered by Straighterline, which offers low-cost online education with credit pathways to about 100 colleges.

Rick Kemp, Rio Salado's dean of Instruction, told researchers that as the importance of prior learning has grown over the years at the college, evaluation is no longer be contained to one office; it is now a college-wide endeavor. “It is part of the college’s culture and needs to be accepted and advocated for through the institution, much like competency-based education,” he said.

Alternative Credentials

The researchers looked at several types of alternative credentials: MOOCs, badges and coding boot camps. SUNY Empire State’s Connecting Credentials Initiative seeks to create a “credentialing ecosystem,” according to Travers, that shows how all types of credentials are verifiable, valid types of learning that can be compared, stacked and aligned through the common language of the framework competencies.

With an average student age of 39, Charter Oak State College reviewed some of edX’s free online courses and prescribed credit recommendations. edX is an online learning and MOOC provider with 90 global partners.

SUNY Empire State and Thomas Edison categorize MOOCs as open educational resources (OER). Students who need more knowledge to receive course credit are referred to a MOOC before being re-assessed, said Thomas Edison's Singer.

“Rather than say ‘Sorry, you failed, go back and start from the beginning,’ we say ‘Here is the one-third of the material you don’t have down yet so here are some modules. Go look at those and then do another evaluation,’ " he said.

Competency-based Learning

Allowing students to focus on skills and knowledge at their own pace, competency-based education is another way that the six institutions enhance their offerings for working adults. Earlier this year, APUS launched a CBE program called Momentum that is focused on demonstrated mastery, said Cali Morrison, APUS director of alternative learning.

“Instead of attending structured classes, students demonstrate their mastery of competencies at their pace with guidance from a faculty mentor and subject matter expert, allowing them to move directly into the next competency without waiting for a new term to begin,” said Morrison. “Since programs have a fixed-term cost, the more competencies completed each term, the more saved on the total degree cost."


Data collection is a challenge even for these six colleges catering to non-traditional students, the report found. For instance, SUNY Empire State uses many systems to identify, track and validate prior learning. These multiple systems, combined with the number of functional offices that interact with student records during the degree program planning process, make it difficult to analyze prior learning sources on a consistent basis.

Additionally, the study found that alternative credentials such as MOOCs are not always tagged as such; therefore the colleges cannot accurately capture data on specific credentials or types of prior learning.

Charter Oak tracks credit equivalencies with reports that detail the types of credit students received based on a variety of factors. Its database matches many of these credentials to the specific training program.

“They are able to track data through the life cycle of the students,” said Buban.

Thomas Edison tracks the types of learning that a student includes in PLAs, which allows the university to have a better understanding of whether or not a PLA contributes to a student completing a degree more quickly, the study found.

Data collection is a hurdle that colleges of all sizes need to tackle in order to successfully capture alternative credits, Buban said. “How many of your learners are trying to bring in some form of alternative credit? If the system can’t track this from that initial stage then we don’t know,” she said.

Worth the Investment?

While prior learning assessment is a hot topic, the report shows how much work goes into alternative creidt programs. “Institutions that want to work with adult learners are going to have to figure many things out,” Buban said. “It’s a shiny new object, but is it right for my institution and for my student body? Is it worth the investment?”

“We’re at the precipice of seeing what the effects of these types of professional and personal development experiences are going to have on the education field,” she said.


SOURCE: Inside Higher Ed