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For decades, community colleges and universities have awarded credit for learning that takes place outside of the classroom. These credits can be awarded for learning through training in the military or on the job, or for certifications given by industry groups and professional organizations. Historically, individual institutions—and in many cases individual academic departments within institutions—have been the ones making the decisions about which experiences or certifications count for college credit. But this has resulted in a confusing web of policies across campuses, and uncertainty for students about whether some credits will transfer from one institution to another.

In 2007, higher education leaders and legislators in Ohio decided to simplify the process of earning credit for learning outside the classroom by establishing a standardized, statewide approach. The Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE) started by awarding college credit for career-technical education and training across public colleges and universities and then moved on to military education and training. Three years ago, state leaders established a set of what they call Industry-Recognized Transfer Assurance Guides (ITAGs), which award statewide credit for industry certifications and professional licenses.

These statewide agreements reduce the need for individual community colleges and universities to separately negotiate their own home-grown policies, and ensure that credit will transfer across institutions. Statewide agreements can also simplify what individuals need to know and do to gain these credits. Ultimately, the aim is to save students time and money on college credentials. In an environment where many are questioning the value of higher education, credit for prior learning can help make the case that colleges are doing what they can to cut costs for individuals.

Beginning in 2021, ODHE partnered with the RAND corporation to gather evidence on Ohio’s ITAG initiative, and to identify ways to be more strategic in scaling the initiative in such a way as to ensure that more Ohioans received credit for industry credentials. Through this work, RAND and ODHE team members have identified six lessons that states and institutions can use to better scale programs that give college credit for industry credentials.

Lesson 1: Use an inclusive and faculty-driven process. The ITAGs approval process built on Ohio’s already well-established statewide system of transfer that began in 1989. College faculty participated in panels and a statewide endorsement process to develop statewide credit-articulation agreements. Faculty expertise is essential for mapping credentials to coursework, and buy-in of faculty is essential for ensuring that institutions will follow through and award credit in a decentralized postsecondary system such as Ohio’s.

Lesson 2: Choose credentials where individuals can benefit most from the opportunity. The goal of credit for industry credentials is to provide individuals with a meaningful onramp into a certificate or degree program at a community college or university. In the past, many institutions have added credit to a student’s transcript that didn’t count toward any of the required coursework for a program, meaning the student didn’t save any time or money toward earning a credential. States should prioritize industry credentials that map well onto a course that is required for a postsecondary certificate or degree program. In addition, those college certificate and degree programs should lead to opportunities in fields with high labor market demand and strong wages. It is critical that employers in the field are looking for credit-bearing certificates and degrees, not just industry credentials. If employers don’t value college credentials, there is no incentive for individuals to enter college and seek credit for industry credentials to advance in their field.

States and postsecondary institutions are particularly focused on looking for new ways to open education and job opportunities to communities that haven’t traditionally had access to college. By prioritizing credentials held by low-income populations, individuals of color and rural communities, states and postsecondary institutions can target the initiatives to these underserved communities.

Lesson 3: Use many messengers to let individuals know that their industry credentials can get them college credit. Many individuals lack information about opportunities to receive college credit for industry credentials. Community colleges and universities have historically served as the primary messengers that communicate with individuals about credit for prior learning. These institutions are best for reaching those who are actively seeking information on college, and for those already enrolling. But many others who can benefit most from these opportunities are not actively seeking information on college programs. To reach this broader set of individuals with industry certifications and licenses, states might need to leverage additional messengers such as high schools and training providers, workforce development centers, employers, professional associations and credential-awarding organizations.

Lesson 4: Use simple messages and communication tools to get the word out. Most individuals and industry partners do not know the term “ITAG” and do not care about the administrative processes involved in awarding college credit to students. They simply want to know how credit for industry credentials can help them in their career. College staff and individuals with industry credentials recommended the state use simple messaging, such as “save time and money on college.” Visual communication tools, such as the ODHE-created pathway map templates can offer a clearer picture of how credits for industry credentials can lead to a college credential and, eventually, better job opportunities.

Lesson 5: Make intake processes at community colleges and universities as streamlined and systematic as possible. Many students who qualify for college credit never receive it. Statewide credit for industry credential initiatives provides an opportunity to revisit how students learn about these opportunities and receive credit. For example, institutions may want to be more proactive in asking students about prior industry credentials on applications and ensuring that advisers are systematically assessing students and gathering paperwork during the admissions and orientation process. Simplifying the process and taking the responsibility off the student to learn about credit for prior learning opportunities and to self-advocate is the best way to ensure all individuals can access these opportunities.

Lesson 6: Track data to assess and improve the initiative. ODHE has an established system for institutions to report and classify different types of alternative credit awarded, and ITAG credit has been incorporated into this existing system. ODHE staff provided training on how to report and code this credit to staff at community colleges and universities. While reporting adds some administrative burden, data can make it possible to identify which institutions are quickly adopting statewide credit for prior learning agreements, and can allow states and institutions to evaluate the impacts of these initiatives on college progress and completion.

These lessons offer a roadmap as states scale statewide credit for prior learning agreements. But it is important to note that these statewide agreements are not a panacea for simplifying the credit for prior learning landscapes. Industry certifications represent a small portion of the learning students have and receive credit for at community colleges and universities, and only a portion of these certifications and licenses are approved for ITAGs. Colleges must layer ITAGs alongside other types of learning experiences that students get credit for (e.g., work experience, high school coursework). In addition, statewide credit for prior learning initiatives require time and money, so it will be important to measure their impacts and consider their return on investment.

Dr. Lindsay Daugherty is a Senior Policy Researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. She is leading studies on short-term and stackable credentials with state and community college system partners in Colorado, Indiana and Ohio.

Dr. Jenna Kramer is a Policy Researcher at RAND. She undertakes research on postsecondary preparation; student experiences, well-being and outcomes; and education, training and career transitions in collaboration with educator and policy stakeholders.

Dr. Elaine Leigh is an Associate Policy Researcher at RAND. She researches promising strategies to improve postsecondary opportunities and smooth workforce transitions for learners of all ages, particularly through institutional, state and cross-sector partnership practices.

Jonah Kushner is an Assistant Policy Researcher at RAND and a graduate student at Pardee RAND Graduate School. He has conducted research in Ohio on training pathways in information technology and computer science, stackable credentials and credit for prior learning.

Nikki Wearly is the Senior Director of Career-Technical Education Transfer Initiatives at ODHE. She oversees all aspects of development and implementation of ITAGs.

Dr. Ben Parrot is the Senior Associate Director for the Secondary Career-Technical Alignment Initiative. at ODHE. He oversees the faculty review panels who ensure that courses being awarded for ITAG credit cover the appropriate content; he also collaborates with institutional staff to ensure that ITAG credit is being awarded in accordance with state policy.

Holly Hall is the Associate Director of ITAGs. She provides project management and leadership for the development and maintenance of statewide articulation agreements for industry-recognized credentials.

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