• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Notes from NEASC, Part Two

Prior learning assessment, accreditation, federal shifts and more.

December 14, 2014

The theme of Friday’s NEASC experience was looking outward. That’s probably a good thing.

Prior Learning Assessment is one form of looking outward. It’s the practice of granting academic credits for demonstrated knowledge or competency picked up in other places. (One speaker helpfully differentiated PLA from competency-based degrees by noting that the former assumes that the student shows up with knowledge, whereas the latter measures knowledge gained during enrollment. It’s imperfect, but it’s a decent start.)  It’s becoming increasingly popular as a way to help adult students move more quickly through degree programs and get on with their careers. As the number of high school graduates drops -- especially in New England -- the needs of adult learners are likely to carry more weight.

But PLA carries baggage. Be too easy with it, and you start to become a diploma mill. Be too strict with it, and you might as well just not bother. And it’s an awkward fit, at best, with financial aid.

Many colleges do the “thin” version of PLA, which involves CLEP exams or departmentally-written challenge exams. (We have both.) Those work pretty well for certain kinds of classes, but usually only at the introductory level. The more robust version allows students to compile portfolios of previous work, and to petition for credits.

Three speakers from places that do PLA with some success -- Deborah Wright, from Lesley University; Gabrielle Dietzel, from the Vermont State Colleges; and Shirley Adams, from Charter Oak State College (CT) -- delivered variations on the same theme: deliver a three-credit course in how to demonstrate prior learning, and then let the students apply at the end of the semester with whatever they believe they can. The three-credit course will be covered by financial aid, and can be figured into faculty workloads like any other three credit course. Each addressed some version of the “conflict of interest” objection, which refers to the expectation that faculty would reject nearly every petition for fear of “giving away” too many credits. In fact, they’ve found, students who receive credits for PLA go on to earn more credits at the college than students who don’t.  It’s a sort of loss leader.

Of course, the key difference is that with a traditional loss leader, the price is prominently displayed to lure the customer. In this case, the customer has to enroll, pay for, and complete a semester-long class before learning which, if any, credits she earned. That’s probably why the overall effect on recruitment is underwhelming.  

Judith Eaton, from CHEA, followed with a session reporting on the political climate around accreditation. With Lamar Alexander taking over leadership of the Education committee in the Senate, there’s some expectation of changed priorities.  (Though with Barack Obama remaining as President, I’m skeptical about how drastically they can change in the next two years.) Briefly, the regional accreditors would like to be substantially left alone, and are pushing an agenda of deregulation combined with increased spending.  So, there’s that.  Senator Alexander has made noises about deregulation, but it’s unlikely to come with additional funding. (Eaton referred to Alexander wanting colleges to have “skin in the game” with student loans.  From a community college perspective, I’ll just note that that presumes the availability of skin.) My fearless prediction, guaranteed or your money back: no drastic changes from the Feds in the next two years. Each side will cancel out the other.

Eaton also noted repeated questioning from feds about whether the regional system -- as opposed a single national one -- makes sense. My guess is that if we were starting from scratch, we’d design a national system, but at this point the transition costs would far outweigh any efficiency gains. The regional system is a quirky accident of history, but it’s hardly a serious obstacle to change.

Finally, I met with Paula Krebs (from Bridgewater State) and several colleagues to continue work on the cross-sectoral partnership she started last Spring. The goal of the partnership is to get research universities, regional colleges/universities, and community colleges talking to each other about how best to prepare graduate students and graduates for the jobs that actually exist at teaching-intensive institutions. (We’re doing a presentation on that at the League for Innovation conference this Spring in Boston.) The kickoff conference last Fall was a roaring success, but moving from initial excitement to sustainable programming is tricky, especially when the goal of the project runs counter to the self-images of the folks at the top graduate programs. Still, if community colleges are going to be put through the wringer for employment outcomes, it seems reasonable that graduate programs get the same treatment. Fair is fair.

Back to the ranch. Worrying about the Feds, financial aid, and graduate programs is all very well, but we have finals. First things first.


Back to Top