Getting Credit for Life

Let’s face it, education is expensive. And as more and more lenders pull out of student aid programs, corporate-funded tuition reimbursement programs get cut and competition for scholarships increases, students might wonder whether starting a degree program is desirable — or even feasible — right now.

However, in a tight job market, having the right credentials is crucial. For this reason, some IT professionals are turning to prior learning assessments (PLAs) rather than enrolling. PLAs can validate experience by determining that learning outside the classroom is equivalent to that of an academic curriculum and therefore deserving of college credit.

Before delving into the various PLA options, let’s first take a look at some of the current challenges to traditional education.

Lack of Financial Aid

Inaccessibility of financial aid has put school out of reach for many families. A study by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) to gauge the impact of the credit crisis on student populations found that “45.8 percent of private colleges said that at least some of their students were ‘stopping out of school or switching to part-time status,’ a finding that conflicts with the widely held notion that students had not, by and large, been seriously deterred from pursuing their studies,” as reported by InsideHigherEd.com. Another finding highlighted that almost 18 percent of independent colleges said “they had enrolled fewer returning students than they had expected, and 19 percent had smaller incoming freshman classes than expected.”

Students who want to attend community colleges are facing similar challenges. A report released this year by The Project on Student Debt disclosed that a quarter of America’s community colleges don’t participate in the federal student loan program, leaving more than a million — or approximately 10 percent — of community college students without access to the lower-rate, fixed-interest loans.

Tuition Reimbursement

Many corporations offer tuition reimbursement programs as part of employees’ comprehensive benefits packages. More adults than ever are returning to school to earn additional degrees or take a few specialized courses. Tuition reimbursement programs vary by organization, and while some cover the total cost of career-related courses, others pay only a fraction, making it tough for some employees to justify spending the money, even at a discounted rate.

There are other restrictions for employees to consider, as well, such as the cost of books or conditional reimbursement. For example, some companies reimburse only for courses specifically related to the employee’s job, when a certain grade is achieved, or if the employee remains with the company a certain length of time after the course or degree is completed. The employer also may require the program to be finished within a certain time period. As a result, sometimes a student’s needs don’t fit cleanly into tuition reimbursement programs.

Competing Resources

For many adult learners, pursuing an education often competes with work and raising a family. It’s tough for adults to commit to another activity that will require their time and attention. Pursuing an education could very easily throw work-life balance off completely — and for many, that’s a deal breaker.

This is one of the reasons online learning has been increasingly successful: It offers the opportunity to take classes or pursue entire degrees in the comfort of one’s own home, when the timing is right. In addition to the proliferation of online learning institutions, schools are tapping into more flexible education alternatives to accommodate the rapidly growing adult learner group. In fact, even fully online learning institutions such as DeVry University and the University of Phoenix have incorporated ways to make their education offerings more attractive to adult learners who are spread too thin.

PLA Plans

With economic hardship and time constraints becoming more of a challenge for people everywhere — so much so that some have started working second jobs — many students decide to put formal education on hold. However, because of its low cost and growing accessibility, prior learning assessment is one way for students to start or continue a degree program when money is tight.

There are many different forms of PLA, however. The November 2007 Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) booklet, titled “Prior Learning Assessment at Home and Abroad,” outlines some of the more commonly known methods:

  • Credit-by-exam programs, such as DSST or CLEP
    award baccalaureate college credit for a passing exam score. (College-Level Examination Program), which test basic 101 material in many subjects and
  • Experiential learning assessments.
  • Evaluation of local training that includes evaluations done by colleges to determine levels of life experience.
  • AP or ACT exams.
  • IT certification exams.

In addition, the American Council on Education (ACE) publishes guides with credit recommendations for formal instructional programs offered by noncollegiate sources.

Thousands of colleges nationwide and hundreds of military institutions accept credits from prior learning assessment programs such as DSST or CLEP, and just as many offer the exams. Each exam offers students the chance to earn three or more college credits for a passing score — generally for less than $100 a pop. In addition, many of these schools will award credit for IT certifications such as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) or an Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP).

If students need prep materials to ensure they can pass the exams, oftentimes they can turn to their program providers, which typically offer practice materials for a small fee. Also, dozens of test-preparation providers, such as iStudySmart or Peterson’s, publish study materials that are available on Amazon.com or at major bookstores.

Getting Started

The easiest way to get started earning a degree is to call the registrar’s office at schools around you and ask whether prior learning assessment is available. Each school is unique in what it accepts as “academic equivalence” in any given curriculum, so information at one school might vary significantly from another.

Before visiting any schools, however, students first should check the ACE National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training. It gives a good idea of the various types of PLA available, as well as the number of credits suggested for experiential learning. Not all schools accept the ACE-suggested credits, though, so students should ask the following questions when contacting institutions:

  1. What types of PLA credits are available? Students may not have to take an exam to get credit if what they do at work — or have done in the past — coincides with something on the curriculum for the degree program.
  2. What proof of learning is necessary for the institution to award you credit? Can you submit a portfolio of work?
  3. If credit-by-exam programs are available, which exams are offered, and do those exams coincide with certain classes required for the degree program?
  4. Does the school offer its own exams for credit?
  5. Does the college follow ACE credit recommendations and guidelines?
  6. Does the college limit the number of credits you can earn through prior learning assessment? Some colleges set credit-limit restrictions.
  7. Does the school require the student to wait until completing a specific number of semesters or credits before he or she is eligible to earn credit through PLA?

In addition, adult learners or other students working at an organization that offers tuition reimbursement should ask the human resources department if PLA is reimbursable in lieu of a full college course.

Thousands of schools are embracing flexible alternatives to traditional learning as a way to accommodate learners of all ages. Providing flexible education alternatives often is an attractive “magnet” by which institutions can attract students of all ages. And while PLA programs are valuable regardless of the economic climate, they become even more so during lean times because they allow students to earn credit for previously learned knowledge with minimal investment of time and money. In these economic times, who can’t afford that? 

Jean Pierron Steinke is the senior product planner for Prometric, a leading provider of testing and assessment services. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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