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Opinion: Getting College Credentials Isn’t Just for 18-Year-Olds Anymore

We’re throwing away people -- and our potential as a nation -- if we don’t facilitate adult learning opportunities

Roland Anglin
Roland Anglin

The continuum of educational choices available after high school is fairly limited. Continuing education, if you don’t proceed from secondary to post-secondary in lockstep, finds you scrambling to get a credential or degree that offers a path to a better job. We throw away much too much potential as a nation, and in the process we are throwing away people.

What many might find surprising – and is not widely discussed – is that the traditional path to college is no longer the norm. Only 16 percent of college students fit that college mode -- attending school full time while living on campus for four years with support from their parents.

College students are increasingly more diverse. Without policies made to specifically address the needs of adult learners, there is the possibility that there will be some significant opportunity costs to the general economy.

Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose hold that since 1990 the supply of people with post-secondary education has lagged relative to demand].

This poses a problem of both economic efficiency and social equity. Because America is not producing enough qualified labor to meet demand, there is a loss in productivity for the economy; the scarcity in labor drives up the cost for those with a degree and widens the income gap, exacerbating inequality.

Carnevale and Rose suggest that at least 15 million more individuals with bachelor’s degrees must be added to the economy by 2025. This means not only increasing access for the traditional college archetype but also making it more accessible to the untapped pool of under-credentialed adults.

The biggest barrier to increasing adult access to post-secondary education is the ”credit hour.”

Ironically, the credit hour was originally developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a tool to assess college professors’ eligibility for a pension. Since its inception in 1906, the credit hour has remained the standard measure of postsecondary student learning.

Colleges and universities have favored the credit hour as a proxy for student mastery of a subject primarily because it is an easy way to do so. What the credit hour assumes is that over the course of a 15-week semester, every one hour of faculty-student contact is matched by two hours of individual work done by the student outside of class.

Depending on how many hours is deemed necessary to grasp the material, courses are assigned credit hours based upon this assumption.

However, as most who have gone through college know, time spent in class actually has little to do with how well one can master a subject.

Adult learners generally have to balance work and family obligations with their schooling. To adult learners, college may appear redundant and seem like a waste of money if they feel they are being forced to learn skills they already possess. The barrier presented by unnecessary classroom time leads countless adult learners to stop pursuing a post-secondary credential.

A reasonable solution for increasing adult learners’ post-secondary enrollment, persistence and completion is to grant credit for skills they have demonstrated in the workforce. Acceptance of experiential learning is done through a test or tool commonly called “prior-learning assessment” (PLA).

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning found that while only 21 percent of adult learners who had not completed any form of PLA earned a bachelor’s or associate degree, 56 percent of those who did complete a PLA earned their degree within seven years To be clear, providing credit for prior learning does not mean that students can get degrees without completing coursework and a curriculum.

Colleges and universities have different ways of measuring students’ experience for PLAs, most of which are very thorough. Individualized assessments usually require students to compose a portfolio for each class they are petitioning to forgo. Students must clearly describe and document specific life experiences in which they gained particular skills. Faculty then evaluates the student’s portfolio for granting credit.

Another popular approach is to use standardized testing, such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) Gaining college credit through PLA is not an easy way out, as some might assume, especially when colleges take their evaluations of student ability seriously.

Today, roughly half of all colleges and universities offer some type of PLA.

Making PLA available to adult learners drives down educational costs and shortens completion time. It should be no surprise that research also shows acceptance of experiential learning credits is the number one factor adult students look for when choosing a college.

Given the urgent need to add skilled labor to the workforce, the system is in need of expansion. Around the country, schools are beginning to recognize how necessary PLAs are to improving students’ ability to persist and attain degrees.

Schools ranging in size, type, and caliber from the Community College of Vermont to Texas A&M to the University of Akron, are all instituting or expanding PLA programs.

New Jersey is one of the nation’s leaders in PLA innovation and development. In July 2014, the state announced a pilot program now under way to help expand PLA in some of the state’s public colleges and universities. The program, known as the New Jersey Prior Learning Assessment Network (NJPLAN), is intended to make testing and portfolio composition easier for students at local colleges. It is estimated that in New Jersey alone more than 863,000 adults have some college but no degree, creating a seriously undercredentialed labor pool.

At the forefront of New Jersey’s PLA innovation is Thomas Edison State College, a school created in 1972 specifically to serve the needs of adult learners. Enrolling over 18,000 adult learners per year, Thomas Edison State College offers a flexible, affordable education, making the school an innovator in both the state and the nation.

Though it was once the global leader in number of highly educated individuals, the United States has fallen behind. Reclaiming that “first in the world” status is predicated on how we go about increasing access and encouraging a broad range of learners.

College is not just for 18-year-olds with limited life experience; encouraging the acquisition of a post-secondary credential opens up opportunity for many adult learners who were not able to make it happen fresh out of high school.

There is no better way for this nation to say “We don’t throw away people” in this country than to help them find multiple pathways to educational success.

Chanel Donaldson, a research associate at the Joseph C. Cornwall Center completed the background research for this article.

Roland V. Anglin is director of the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.

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