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The granting of college credit for learning that occurs outside of the academic setting has become an increasingly visible part of the national college completion push, with broad efforts under way in several states to ramp up prior-learning assessment.

State legislatures have gotten into the action, thanks in part to advocacy by the Lumina Foundation and Complete College America, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Tennessee is among a handful of states where recently passed legislation nudges public colleges to issue credit for prior learning and to develop statewide standards. In other states, public college systems have taken the lead, including the State University of New York (SUNY).

The Obama Administration has also helped encourage prior-learning assessment, most notably through $2 billion in Labor Department grants aimed at job training for displaced workers. The grants require colleges to incorporate prior-learning credits.

Lawmakers see prior learning as a “tool in completion,” and a practical one, said Iris Palmer, a senior associate for HCM Strategists. Palmer worked with the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) to create a guide for state policy makers on prior-learning assessment. The report also tracks how the process is being adopted around the country.

Prior-learning assessment takes three primary forms: through portfolios students put together to demonstrate college-level learning, with examinations of that learning and knowledge, and though programmatic review, where a college or an outside group issues standardized credit recommendations based on assessments of military or on-the-job training.

The process, which goes back decades, is related to its hipper cousins among possible “disruptions” to higher education: competency-based education and massive open online courses (MOOCs).

It’s similar to the competency-based approach, which allows students to prove what they know at their own pace without the help of traditional coursework or lectures. And prior-learning assessment is one way students could earn credits for what they learn in MOOCs.

But while it’s newly en vogue, prior-learning assessment is still controversial in many circles, particularly among faculty members.

It’s more about “educational deterioration” than disruption, said Gary Rhoades, a professor of education at the University of Arizona and the former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. The incentives driving prior learning’s spread are wrong, he said, and control of its application is wrongly taken out of professors’ hands in most cases.

“The push to expand prior-learning assessment as a new innovation in a rush to ‘complete’ reduces accountability to simply counting more completers, faster,” Rhoades said in an e-mail. “It cheapens a college education, cheats the student and society, and prioritizes stamping students as certified over providing them with a quality education."

Prior-learning assessment also faces plenty of structural hurdles to going more mainstream. Many colleges don’t grant credits for prior learning or accept them as transfer credits. And at those that do, prior-learning credits often don't count toward degrees and major requirements. Furthermore, state and federal financial aid cannot be used by students to cover related tuition and assessment costs.

Colleges, states and systems should start at square one to hash out important details of how to get prior-learning assessment right, said Chari Leader Kelley, vice president of CAEL’s, which is an online portfolio service. That means agreeing on which assessments to use and how prior-learning credits should be represented on transcripts, for example.

However, the biggest challenge is that the process separates teaching and assessment. “The whole idea that if I teach it, it’s better than how you teach it,” as Leader Kelley said, is tough to overcome.

Voluntary Task Force in the Volunteer State

Tennessee is leading the way on prior-learning assessment with a new statewide campaign that may be the nation’s most comprehensive. Many other states have prior-learning policies on the books, however, with notable recent legislation in Colorado and Washington State.

The quest to get more adult students to graduation is behind those policies, because research has found that adult students are more likely to earn a degree or credential if they receive credit for prior learning.

Tennessee has made the right moves by being flexible in its approach, supporters of prior-learning assessment said. Another key was letting on-the-ground representatives from colleges, including faculty members, take the lead.

The state takes performance-based funding seriously, with all of its base funding for higher education now tied to college completion. That policy was part of a reform package dubbed the “Complete College Tennessee Act,” which the Legislature passed in 2010. Adult students got plenty of attention in that legislation, including financial incentives for colleges that graduate more students who are at least 25-years-old.

Then, last year, Complete College America gave the state a related “innovation” grant that called for the creation of statewide standards on prior-learning assessment.

Tennessee’s Higher Education Commission has led that effort, creating a voluntary task force that all but one of the state’s public colleges joined. That group’s goal is to make prior-learning assessment clearer for students and more standardized.

“It wasn’t consistent across the state,” said Jessica Gibson, the commission’s assistant director for policy, planning and research. “It needed to be and more students needed to know about that.”

The task force last summer drafted and approved standards, which are now being considered by governing boards of individual colleges. They would establish that colleges allow students to use prior-learning credits for big chunks of their degree requirements, often at least half of them. For example, a community college must not set its prior-learning cap at less than 30 credits for an associate degree, which typically takes 60 credits, and four-year institutions must allow 60 or more prior-learning credits for the standard 120-credit bachelor degree.

The standards also say prior-learning credits should be treated the same way as those earned for traditional courses, by counting toward requirements for majors, general education and prerequisites. However, at least 25 percent of the credits for a credential must not be from prior learning, according to the report, with those credits being tied to instruction by the credential-issuing college.

Substituting prior-learning credits for general education requirements could be particularly controversial, as they would replace an institution's core academic offerings. And the standards would require colleges to accept prior-learning credits that other Tennessee colleges have approved, and count them toward degrees and general education requirements if the issuing college made that call.

“College-level learning is the same, whether acquired in the traditional college classroom or through non-collegiate sources,” according to the report. “This equivalency is validated by academically sound and rigorous prior-learning assessment methods.”

Those are fighting words to opponents of prior-learning assessment. But at least some faculty members were at the table in Tennessee from the get-go, with a process that included public meetings and summits. The negotiations over standards weren’t always easy, and some faculty felt the new rules might lessen the integrity of classwork. But Gibson said the commission's door is still open.

If people have concerns about the report or prior learning more broadly, “we want to hear them,” she said.

Systemwide at SUNY

On the system level, SUNY is working on ways to encourage more prior-learning assessment by its 64 campuses. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the University of Wisconsin System have also worked on systemwide prior-learning policies.

Empire State College will play a big role in SUNY’s prior-learning push. The college focuses on adult and online learning, and prior-learning assessment is central to its mission. For example, all students must take a credit-bearing course on “educational planning” after enrolling. In addition to plotting paths to individualized degrees, the course includes a portfolio approach to students making the case for prior-learning credits.

“We’re the only college in the world that requires you to write a 50- to 60-page paper when you’re admitted,” said Robert (Bob) Clougherty, the college’s acting vice provost for research, innovation and open education.

Empire State is using a Lumina grant to figure out how to assess learning through open educational resources, including MOOCs. And the college will share what it learns with the rest of the system. Clougherty said a first step would be to develop assessments for two free, online courses offered by the Saylor Foundation – one STEM course and one in the humanities.

The college will share these and other tools with the rest of SUNY. “Part of our work is going out there and getting people on board,” said Clougherty.

With support from the central office in Albany, some SUNY institutions will lift pages from Empire State’s playbook. But for prior learning to really take off at SUNY or other systems and states, observers said its supporters must push the process while also letting colleges figure out how best to make it happen on their campus.

“It’s a very delicate balance,” Leader Kelley said.

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