Measure learning, not seat time

It’s time to “boldly go” beyond the credit hour, writes Allen Goben, president of Heartland Community College in Illinois. In a series of meetings, Goben asked faculty, continuing education professionals and education, business and industry leaders to imagine starting a higher education system from scratch. They suggested replacing credit hours with assessment of learning outcomes. Students could “stack” learning modules, courses, certificates and degrees as they move toward their goals.

• A robust learning and prior learning assessment structure would be developed . . . Students who already have certain knowledge or skills would be allowed to move on to other learning experiences . . .

• If needed, lower testing fees would be used to document already-acquired knowledge and skills while comparatively higher fees would be charged for full instruction and instructional support, so that people and organizations offering these services would be able to sustain themselves.

• A thorough career and interest inventory and advising structure would fuel all goal setting, planning and monitoring, as well as adjustments in student learning and progress toward eventual career, college and life success.

• A tremendous mentoring program would anchor the approach where classroom efforts, lab experiences and self-guided tutorials would be complemented by apprenticeships, internships and one-on-one and/or small group mentoring.

• All of education would be built around the learner and learning needs, and this would require a high degree of interaction and personalization as each learner’s needs were explored and supported.

If higher education were based on learning outcomes, there’d be no need for the traditional “silos of liberal arts, career/technical/vocational education, allied health and continuing education,” concludes Goben.

Back to college? It’s not easy

Some 37 million Americans — more than 20 percent of working adults –have some college credits, but no degree. Persuading dropouts to try again for a degree is a popular strategy to increase the number of college graduates, notes the Hechinger Report. But college can be just as hard the second time around.

The Center for Adult Learning in Louisiana (CALL) offers intensive courses that let students earn credits twice as quickly as traditional courses. Via a “prior learning assessment,” students can earn credit for what they know, whether they’ve learned in college, from independent studying or life experience.

One of CALL’s success stories is John McGee, who had spent seven years in the military and more than a decade as a manager at a Louisiana casino when he went back to college as a working adult. Despite his experience, McGee had to take the same introductory courses as an 18-year-old, leaving him bored and frustrated.

Through CALL, McGee tested out of five introductory courses by passing a series of exams. He took the rest of his classes online in the accelerated format, and finished an associate degree in less than a year.

But colleges and universities often don’t focus on helping students complete a degree, said Sallie Glickman, co-founder of a Philadelphia program that helps dropouts return to school.

“All the money, all the resources, all the energy” have been focused on getting more people to go to college, said Glickman. For those who drop out, she said, there has been no organized effort to get them back.

But Bryan Cook, director for policy analysis at the American Council on Education, said tracking non-graduates and luring them back to campus is very costly. “If you’re only going to increase your graduation rate by a tenth of a percent, is it worth spending $10,000 to do that?”

Many students who return to college end up quitting yet again, said Stan Jones,president of Complete College America.

In addition to rejecting transfer credit or refusing to give credit for professional experience, “The colleges that we have now were designed for traditional students that lived on campus, went full time, and had resources,” Jones said.

Most of today’s college students don’t fit that profile. Three-quarters commute to class, 40 percent attend part time, a third are 25 or older, and most have jobs. At community colleges, where close to half of all college students are enrolled, more than 40 percent of students work full time.

Jones said that colleges need to schedule classes in ways that work for people with busy lives, provide better counseling to help students navigate choices about courses and degrees, and make it easier to transfer credits. They also need to offer more online and accelerated-degree programs, he said. And Jones said colleges should give students course credit for professional experience.

There are many ways for adults to acquire knowledge, skills and competence.  What they need are tests to prove what they know.