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(this one is a little wonkish…)

The Chronicle has a good feature story on what happens to students of for-profit colleges when those colleges close abruptly.  It’s infuriating in a bunch of ways, most notably in the consequences for students who suddenly find themselves not only saddled with debt without a degree, but even homeless, because the financial aid refund check they were counting on didn’t come. 

For-profits aren’t the only colleges that close, though they’re overrepresented in that category.  They seem likelier to close mid-semester; typically when nonprofits close, they finish the current semester or year and arrange “teach-outs” for their students at other colleges. 

Teach-outs are often harder for the for-profits, because their degrees usually aren’t regionally accredited.  That means that most other colleges in their areas won’t recognize the courses as valid. A student a semester away from graduating at a for-profit might have to start all over again at a community or state college; by that point, they may not have enough financial aid eligibility remaining to finish a degree.  Not to mention the lost time and effort.

Contrary to some of the discussion going on in DC now, accreditation matters.  It ensures some basic level of quality, and of measures to ensure continuous improvement.  Without it, anyone could put out a shingle and take government money to teach students pretty much anything and call it a degree.  Accreditation is supposed to ensure the public that a given college or university is valid.

When a student transfers from one accredited college to another, their credits are eligible for transfer.  A student with a passing grade for Intro to Psychology at Hypothetical Community College is granted credit for Intro to Psychology at Hypothetical State U.  That way they don’t have to start over.

So, here’s where I’m going with this.

Previous coursework at an accredited institution isn’t the only way to grant credit for prior work.  Prior Learning Assessment -- PLA -- refers to various methods by which colleges determine whether a student knows enough, or has sufficiently developed competencies, to be awarded credit for classes they never took.  AP exams are a form of PLA; if a student scores a 4 on an AP Calculus exam, they’ll get credit for the corresponding class here. CLEP and DSST exams function similarly. In each case, a student who demonstrates knowledge or competency to a certain level can waive some classes in their degree program.  It can save time and money.

The problem is that CLEP and DSST exams typically only cover introductory classes, and usually only in general education areas.  That’s helpful, but a student whose background is largely in a specialized technical area either has to go without credit, or has to develop some sort of bespoke portfolio that then has to be evaluated.  CAEL uses that model. It’s rigorous, but it’s time-consuming and often more expensive than the classes themselves would be at a community college. Case-by-case portfolios are labor-intensive, idiosyncratic, and prone to all manner of bias.

But if a community or state college had a robust, relatively streamlined PLA protocol, it could perform a rescue mission for many of the displaced students of for-profits without forcing them to start over again.  It could give them credit for what they can demonstrate that they know or can do, regardless of the accreditation status of where they learned it. With an AP exam, if the student scores high enough, we don’t ask who taught the class that led up to it; the same principle would apply here.  If you can crush the PLA for, say, Intro to Programming, then I really don’t care where you learned those skills. You can get credit and move on.

PLA-driven rescue operations like this are subject to a few objections.  One is that some for-profits teach so little, or so badly, that reasonable prior learning assessments would demonstrate too little prior learning to count for much.  In those cases, no, PLA wouldn’t help. But I’m guessing that some students actually learned some things at some point. The other, which is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can help, is around scale.  Other than CLEP and a few other standardized tests, which only cover what they cover, there isn’t much out there.

Has anyone seen -- or better yet, used -- a relatively robust-yet-scalable way of doing PLA?  I’d love to see community and state colleges throw lifelines to some of the students who are otherwise abandoned, but those lifelines are only helpful if they don’t involve starting over.  If we can find academically valid ways to assess a lot of credits quickly, it could be done. I’m just stuck on how.

Wise and worldly readers, any thoughts?


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