New tool helps adults get credit for experience

To award college credits for students’ prior learning, colleges need a way to assess their training and experience, notes Community College Times. Rio Salado College in Arizona is using LearningCounts, an electronic portfolio-assessment initiative from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

Students create electronic portfolios that are “assessed by expert faculty members from across the U.S. who examine the content and breadth of each student’s on-the-job learning, corporate training, independent study, military service and volunteer service,” reports Community College Times. LearningCounts then recommends how much credit to award.

Houston Community College (HCC) in Texas is using CAEL’s tool to provide an objective portfolio assessment, said Madeline Burillo, associate vice chancellor for workforce instruction at HCC.

“Especially in large community college systems where you have different colleges, a department chair at one college might have a different opinion about a portfolio than a department chair from another college.”

North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) is testing LearningCounts to replace a cumbersome portfolio-assessment process.

A credit here, a credit there

Assembling credits from AP and a variety of online courses, Richard Linder earned a debt-free associate degree from Excelsior College, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The total cost was $3,000.

His credits included art appreciation, music appreciation, macroeconomics, psychology, accounting, statistics, trigonometry, Fire Service Management and a series of Federal Emergency Management Agency courses, such as Livestock in Disasters.  He used StraighterLine, Penn Foster College, Microsoft, National Fire Academy and other online providers.

Excelsior, which is accredited, specializes in online learning for adults: “We offer busy students around the world the advantage of both earning credit at a distance and applying previously-earned college-level credit toward degree or certificate programs.”

Reinventing higher ed in California

California needs to reinvent its higher higher education system, writes John Aubrey Douglass, senior research fellow at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, in the Los Angeles Times.

California’s leaders should set an ambitious goal: “that the state match or exceed the access and degree-production rates of the highest-achieving states or, better yet, international competitors,” Douglass writes. That will require increasing access to four-year universities.

Currently, more than 70 percent of the state’s college students enroll in underfunded community colleges. Most attend part-time, leading to high attrition rates. Only 18 percent of community college students earn an associate degree. By contrast, 45 percent of California State University students and 90 percent of University of California students complete a bachelor’s degree.

Instead of increasing access, Cal State campuses are cutting enrollment to cope with budget cuts, which have forced faculty layoffs and reduced course offerings.

We should allow a key number of community colleges, perhaps 10 or more, to grant four-year as well as two-year degrees.

. . . In Florida, for example, the experiment is about “training people for real jobs,” says Miami Dade Community College President Eduardo J. Padron, who cited nursing and teaching programs.

“You won’t see us starting a B.A. in sociology. We’re offering degrees in things the universities don’t want to do,” Padron said.

Some community colleges could focus on preparing students to transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree, while others could specialize in remediation, Douglass suggests. A “gap year” program to get students up to the college level could raise graduation rates in the Cal State and UC systems.

Adult learners could utilize a new online California Open University.

To pay for these changes, the state should charge higher tuition to wealthy students and international students — even at the community college level — to subsidize low- and middle-income students, Douglass suggests.



WGU challenges for-profits

Western Governors University — an accredited, low-cost, nonprofit online university — is The College For-profits Should Fear, writes John Gravois in the  Washington Monthly. Designed for working adults, WGU costs less than $6,000 a year, while tuition at for-profit universities averages $15,600.

WGU degrees are based on competency, not on “seat time,” so students can move at their own pace.

By gathering information from employers, industry experts, and academics, Western Governors formulates a detailed, institution- wide sense of what every graduate of a given degree program needs to know. Then they work backward from there, defining what every student who has taken a given course needs to know. As they go, they design assessments—tests—of all those competencies. “Essentially,” says Kevin Kinser, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany, “they’re creating a bar exam for each point along the way that leads to a degree.”

. . . At the beginning of a course, students are given a test called a “pre-assessment.” Then they have a conversation with their mentor—a kind of personal coach assigned to each student for the duration of their degree program—to discuss which concepts in the course they already grasp, which they still need to master, and how to go about closing the gap. The students are then offered a broad set of “learning resources”—a drab phrase, sure, but no more so than “crowded lecture hall”—that may include videos, textbooks, online simulations, conversations with a WGU course mentor (an expert in the subject matter who is on call to answer questions), or even tutors in the student’s hometown.

Students pay $6,000 for as many courses as they can finish in two semesters.  The average student is able to complete a bachelor’s degree in two and a half years for about $15,000.

Traditional-age students don’t do well in WGU’s online, competency-based program, but the model works for adults with some college and work experience. The average student is 36 years old, the same as in University of Phoenix’s online programs.

WGU offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, business, information technology and health professions, mainly nursing. The model works well for professions with a proficiency test, such as the nursing certification exam or the Praxis for teachers, Gravois writes. For example, Ray Shawn McKinnon, a former pastor hoping for a business career, will have to pass the national human resources management certification exam to earn his MBA in human resources.

In an online education sector plagued by accusations of low quality, Western Governors can show that its degrees are backstopped by the official guardians of various professions. (It also helps that WGU students tend to score higher than the national average on such professional exams.)

WGU’s six-year graduation rate — calculated by the feds only for first-time, full-time students — is only 22 percent, the same as the for-profit average.  WGU estimates 40 percent of all students, including part-timers and those returning to college, complete a degree.  Those rates look back to 2004, when WGU’s program was weaker, writes Gravois. This year, 77 percent of first-year students returned for a second year, “higher than the national average at both for-profits and traditional schools.”

As the for-profit colleges report shrinking enrollments, WGU’s enrollment is growing by 30 percent a year.  Indiana has made WGU a state university, which means students can qualify for state aid. Washington, Texas, California and Arizona and other states may follow suit.

Leave no motivated adult behind

Four-year colleges and universities must adapt to meet the needs of adult learners, writes Susan C. Aldridge, president of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in the Baltimore Sun. Thousands of hard-working community college students want to earn a bachelor’s degree, but never make it.  

Cost is the first barrier:  On average, students spend $2,500 a year for community college tuition, $7,000 average for public universities and$26,000 for private institutions.

In addition, four-year colleges and universities may reject transfer students’ credits arbitrarily, schedule classes at difficult times for working students and fail to “provide enough parking spaces for people rushing from work to class.”

Traditional public colleges and universities must work with community colleges to create degree pathways, Aldridge writes.

First, community college students need more than courses. They need a plan, worked out when they start, that identifies the courses they must take to qualify to transfer to a four-year institution. These plans may include credit for on-the job learning. They may include credit for more affordable courses taken elsewhere.

Second, community college students need help paying tuition when they transfer to four-year institutions. Any student who maintains an average above 3.0 should qualify for a scholarship. Almost all scholarship students go on to earn a four-year degree. Perhaps companies whose employees are working for a four-year degree will contribute.

Third, many students need the flexibility of online courses if they are going to graduate while working. Yes, customary face-to-face classes are valuable to the university experience. But universities need to mix and match a variety of learning approaches so students can pick the ones that work best for them.

UMUC uses a mix of online and classroom-based instruction to educate more than 90,000 adults worldwide. Nearly all students are employed; half are raising children.