WASHINGTON – If higher education has a group of quintessential insiders, it’s probably the American Council on Education. Yet from a perch atop the higher education lobby’s headquarters here, the membership association of 1,800 college presidents is backing high-profile “disruptions” to the industry it represents.
The council says it wants more students to earn college credit for learning that occurs outside the college classroom. Some of these credit pathways are trendy and new; others have been around for decades. But interest in prior learning assessment has grown rapidly, particularly during the last six months, and ACE is riding the wave.
ACE's leaders say they are giving a boost to alternative credit pathways because of the college “completion agenda,” work force development and money worries that are buffeting colleges.
“We are experiencing a confluence of forces of change," Molly Broad, the council’s president, recently told the University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents. "All of this coming together is persuasive that business as usual is not in the future cards and we must innovate."
While it’s known primarily as a lobby and membership group, ACE, whose annual meeting opened Sunday, has long had a hand in prior learning assessment. The council started issuing credit recommendations for military service shortly after World War II, and added the assessment of corporate training programs for credit in 1974. These days students can get transcripts for ACE’s credit recommendations for $20 a pop. The council has issued 63,000 credit transcripts since 2001.
More innovative, or controversial depending on your perspective, is the council’s recent extension of its credit recommendations to courses offered by non-accredited online providers. ACE a few years ago gave its approval to self-paced courses from StraighterLine and Pearson’s Propero. And earlier this year the council made plenty of noise by deciding that five courses from Coursera, the biggest of the MOOC providers, were worthy of credit recommendations. More are likely on the way, as ACE is reviewing courses from Udacity and others from Coursera and is talking about doing the same for edX, which together round out the big three of MOOC providers.
As a result, ACE, along with the smaller National College Credit Recommendation Service (CCRS), fills a unique, almost accreditor-like role in its review of the quality and credit-worthiness of individual courses. Regional accreditors, in contrast, authorize institutions to issue credits and credentials. (The National CCRS is part of the University of the State of New York's Regents Research Fund.)
Colleges’ acceptance of ACE’s credit recommendations is a mixed bag. Some fully recognize the transcripts, particularly open-access institutions or colleges that specialize in adult students. Others grant only partial credit, with some of the issued credits often not counting toward requirements for a major. And many more selective colleges do not accept ACE’s credit recommendations at all.
The council says it will encourage broader acceptance of the transcripts.
“We hope to expand it because it helps students,” says Cathy A. Sandeen, who ACE brought in this year to be its vice president for educational attainment and innovation. Sandeen was previously dean of continuing education at the University of California at Los Angeles.
That effort will come with some risks, because prior learning remains controversial in the academy. Academic quality is a concern for some faculty members, who worry about issuing credits for learning that happens outside their purview. And the upstart online institutions that accept lots of ACE credits could pose a threat to traditional colleges.
Meanwhile, many observers wonder, can the establishment play a starring role in the revolution?
Andrew P. Kelly, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, says ACE can and should move forward in “accrediting” individual courses. It just shouldn’t be the only option.
“Empowering a group that represents incumbents to pick winners and losers seems like a recipe for more of the same -- small pockets of noteworthy innovation that help some students, but little systemic change,” he says via e-mail.
The council’s decades of work on credit recommendations has been a quiet sideline gig, in part because the adult student market didn’t get much attention.
But that’s changed. For example, in the policy document backing his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for accreditors to value higher education models based on “performance and results.” The reference was widely viewed as a nod to competency-based education, through which students earn credit based on what they know, not where or how they learned. Prior learning assessment and competency-based offerings overlap in many ways, and both challenge the credit hour’s reliance on “seat time” as the basis for college credentialing.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, was more specific in endorsing prior learning assessment in his response to the State of the Union, arguing that federal student aid shouldn’t exclude offerings aimed at adult students, such as “online courses or degree programs that give you credit for work experience.”
Beyond politicians, powerful foundations have increasingly lent their clout and deep pockets to alternative credit pathways. The Lumina Foundation has backed moves by state legislatures and higher education systems to encourage the broader acceptance of prior learning credits. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a primary funder of nascent efforts to award credit for MOOCs.
For example, Gates last November announced $3 million in grants related to MOOC credit, much of that for research projects. About $900,000 of the money went to ACE’s credit reviews of Coursera offerings and to a committee of 18 college presidents who will discuss MOOCs' potential.
The council also plans to announce a grant for a college to study its acceptance of MOOC and other prior learning credit, Sandeen says, and to study how students who bring in those credits fare when enrolled at the college.
“We hope to foster deeper conversation and debate” Sandeen says. “We don’t have all the answers.”
Corporations have also increasingly clamored for ACE’s credit reviews. For a fee of around $25,000, faculty members on contract with the council scrutinize a company’s training programs for potential credit recommendations. The 600 corporations and government agencies that have gone through the process include McDonald’s, Starbucks and the National Security Agency. The reviews must be renewed every three years. And MOOCs will be on the same schedule, Sandeen says.
ACE also helps companies spread the word about the credits their employees earn on the job. For example, the council will reach out to member colleges that are near the company and its operations, encouraging them to accept credit recommendations. But a college always has the final say on that, say ACE officials. And the answer is often a no.
For example, in February the council gave the green light to five of Coursera’s offerings. Students will pay up to $190 for the “freemium” version of the courses, which will include a verification process to make sure the students actually do the work. In return, they can receive a certificate with more weight, as well as ACE credit recommendations.
Yet none of the universities whose professors teach the first crop of credit-approved courses will themselves recognize the credit. That means students at Duke University, the University of California at Irvine or the University of Pennsylvania cannot earn credit for MOOCs taught by professors at their universities.
Council officials say 82 percent of students successfully receive some credit for their ACE credit recommendations. The council is well-positioned to nudge prior learning up the prestige ladder by encouraging more traditional colleges to accept its credit recommendations. But that won’t be easy and ACE probably wants to avoid pushing too hard and alienating its members.
Sandeen says she’s optimistic about the council’s ability to walk that tightrope. “ACE is at a perfect point to bring those two worlds together.”
Big Man on Campus
The recent attention has helped ACE in its prior learning push. But it has also led to some tensions about the group’s leadership role.
One challenge comes from national advocates for faculty members, who have questioned whether online innovations like MOOCs, which are less personal than face-to-face teaching, are the right way to increase adult students’ access to higher education.
Gary Rhoades is a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and the former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. He says ACE should be commended for drawing attention to an underserved group of students. But what will help them and the country best, he says, “is not rapid certification but rigorous, quality education in which they really engage faculty and peers.”
Some observers also speculate that the council’s own finances might be at play in its pursuit of the growing market for alternative credits. Sandeen says money is not a primary driver for the nonprofit group, but “we do need to cover our costs.”
Among other veterans of prior learning assessment, a few worry that the powerful group could be a bully in the market place. One sign of that tension was the council’s decision in January to no longer issue credit recommendations for LearningCounts.org, a service through which students make a case for a credit through a “portfolio” describing their learning outside of college. LearningCounts is a subsidiary of the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), which joins ACE as the other major, national group overseeing prior learning.
Sandeen says the portfolio approach is different from the assessment of learning in corporate training or MOOCs, and is not in ACE’s wheelhouse for credit recommendations.
A related concern about the council’s clout in the space is that it might play favorites, such as by giving priority to Coursera -- and its prestigious university partners -- over upstarts like StraighterLine or even lesser-known institutions that have long focused on adult students.
For example, Excelsior College, a pioneer on prior learning, will not honor ACE’s credit recommendations for MOOCs. That decision is noteworthy for a college where the vast majority of the 600,000 outside credits it accepted last year were credit recommendations from the council.
John Ebersole, Excelsior's president, says the move was due to concern about a perception that ACE might have “rushed to judgment with the MOOCs,” which in turn could harm prior learning assessment more broadly.
“If people lose confidence in the process, we’re going to put thousands of students at risk,” he says.
The safe bet, however, is that credit for prior learning is going to continue expanding. And Ebersole and other prior learning vets say they share the same broad goals with ACE, which can be a powerful ally.
“They’re the national leader,” Ebersole says.
Sandeen says ACE’s advocacy for emerging credit pathways is central to the group’s core mission, which is to help its members be forward-looking.
To that end, the council in January released a report it commissioned on adult students. Louis Soares, an expert on alternative credentialing and an adviser to ACE, wrote the paper, which said the rise of adult learners is driving much of the change in higher education.
While ACE has been active in the prior learning space for a long time, Sandeen says she can understand why the recent attention has led to some confusion. The council plans to put a lot of energy into communicating with its members about the work.
“All of this is really speeding up,” she says. “We’ve come into the spotlight very quickly.”
The council stresses that it doesn’t view ACE credit recommendations as a threat to conventional colleges. Sandeen says that with the broad consensus that more American workers should hold meaningful college credentials, there’s plenty of work to go around.
“We need every institution that we have firing on all cylinders,” she says. “And we need more.”
Tina Grant, director of the National College Credit Recommendation Service, agrees. "ACE has the corner on the market place, but that doesn't mean we don't have enough to do."