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Pa.'s public universities open doors to prior learning credits

Creditworthy in the Keystone State
August 23, 2012

Pennsylvania’s regional public universities are gearing up to serve more adult students, and will use prior learning assessment and stackable credentials to help meet that anticipated demand.

Work force development is a priority for the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, in part because they are often the only public game in town. Many lack nearby community colleges, especially the universities in the state's central and northern regions,  so the four-year system sports a healthy suite of associate degrees and one-year certificates, along with the standard fare of bachelor’s degrees.

“We offer the best of both worlds,” says Christopher Reber, executive dean of Clarion University’s Venango College campus.

Those academic programs attract large numbers of nontraditional students, for whom the potential to earn credits for their learning outside of the classroom can be a big draw. The system already does prior learning assessment, but plans to expand through a new partnership with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). System officials expect students will seek and receive credits for learning on the job, from technical training programs, in the military or from other sources, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), according to John Cavanaugh, the system’s chancellor.

“We’re going to open it up to any kind of prior learning that people are bringing,” Cavanaugh says. However, he stresses that by working with CAEL, the system will be able to ensure that it issues credits for college-level learning that matches up with the system's academic course offerings. “You’re still going to have to demonstrate that you’ve got the learning before that translates to credit.”

The Pennsylvania system will be perhaps the largest public university partner to sign on to Learning Counts, CAEL's portfolio-based prior-learning service, an official at the council says. Through Learning Counts, students fork over $500 for an online course on how to put together a portfolio that collects and describes their prior learning. For an additional fee of $250, faculty experts review those submissions and can issue recommendations worth up to 12 credits.

However, not all colleges accept prior-learning recommendations, even if they come from CAEL, which is generally considered to be an industry leader. So the council has enlisted over 100 partner institutions that have agreed to defer to Learning Counts and issue full credit for successful portfolios. The Pennsylvania system is joining that group, Cavanaugh says.

Credit for MOOCs?

One reason many colleges are skittish about granting credits for prior learning is because to do so is to acknowledge that the academy doesn’t have a lock on college-level learning. Some faculty members also view the process warily, arguing that it can be an academically suspect money grab and a weak substitute for college.

Prior learning could also threaten professors’ jobs.

“It changes who generates the credits,” says Steve Hicks, an English professor at Loch Haven University and president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the system’s primary union. “Potentially there’s a job loss there.”

Hicks says that representatives from the faculty union met with system officials about Learning Counts and prior learning. While he says they were “concerned” about the plan, they have yet to take a position on it.

Cavanaugh and other administrators defend their approach, and say chief academic officers have been busy vetting how prior-learning credits will align with curriculums. Furthermore, Cavanaugh says the system has long granted credit to students who take College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests, which are administered by the College Board to measure college-level learning. So the portfolio approach isn’t such a stretch.

“The notion that this is credit for living is just not the case,” he says.

The system held lengthy discussions about whether it should grant credit for MOOCs, according to Cavanaugh. CAEL has predicted that many students will seek credit for MOOCs, and the council plans to include those courses in credit recommendations if students can demonstrate that they have received college-level learning. Eventually the system decided it was on board, as long as MOOC credit submissions receive the Learning Counts stamp.

“We fully expect to see people putting them in the portfolios,” says Cavanaugh.

Daniel Hurley praises the system's plan to ramp up prior-learning assessment, and its proactive approach with new forms of online learning. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, says the system and other regional publics can play a leading role in prior learning, in part because they enroll many students who might benefit from the process.

The system is also not alone in helping community colleges on work force development. Hurley says that 42 percent of the association's members issue two-year degrees. "It's really about meeting demand."

Up the Ladder

It’s a long way from Edinboro University to the nearest community college -- like two hours.

The university is close to Erie, where county leaders have pushed hard for a new two-year college. But that idea tanked last year, after a saga described in an Education Sector report. So the university decided it had to step up its technical job training options. This fall Edinboro will launch a new associate degree in applied technology.

But Edinboro’s evolving approach is more ambitious than just a few isolated academic offerings, says Julie E. Wollman, the university's president. It is working with technical trade schools, most of them small for-profits with ties to local industries, to help students get credit for previously earned technical certificates when they enroll at Edinboro.

Sometimes students arrive at the university years after having attended a trade school.

“A lot of people get a certificate at one of those places and go right to a job,” Wollman says.

To advance in their careers, even jobs on the floor of a manufacturing plant, they often need the sort of training only a college can provide. Edinboro treats the prior learning students bring from their jobs and technical trade certificates as the core of their major, Wollman says. And they can earn up to 27 prior learning credits. Then the university offers students classes that help them bolster their communication, analytical, business and mathematics skills.

“What they’re bringing is the major,” she says. “What we’re really providing is the general education.”

An hour down the road, Clarion’s Venango campus has developed similar ways for students to enroll with credits from their work experience. And both institutions are designing their sub-baccalaureate credentials to be stackable, meaning students can complete a certificate or associate degree, leave to take a job, and then seamlessly return to continue working toward a bachelor degree.

Reber calls the approach a “ladder” of credentials. To create credit pathways at Clarion, his campus has collaborated with several technical institutions and employers, including the Precision Manufacturing Institute and FirstEnergy Corporation.

Clarion is also introducing online degree completion programs, including an associate in industrial technology and a bachelor’s in technology leadership. The online coursework is particularly handy for adult students who work full time. And it’s not surprising that students might prefer to keep their jobs and enroll online, rather than attending Clarion as traditional students. Some of the Venango campus’s employer partners pay a guaranteed $60,000 salary to associate-degree holders from the university, and will cover tuition for employees who finish their bachelor's degree.

For Venango and Clarion, as well as for other universities in the system, one benefit of work place partnerships is a boost to enrollment. Located in Oil City, the campus is surrounded by an aging population, and adult workers are generally conscientious students.

“It’s a win-win,” Reber says.

 

 

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