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Momentum Grows for Trading Life, Job Experience for Academic Credit

SEATTLE — Laid off at the start of the recession as marketing director for a regional homebuilder, Leah Schedin quickly realized she lacked something essential for a new job: a university degree.

Schedin had completed courses here and there at a community college, but never enough for a bachelor’s degree. Without one, she found, her 18 years of experience didn’t matter.

“These days, you’re applying online, and you’re filtered out as soon as you get to the question about whether you have a degree,” said the 46-year-old married mother of a teenage daughter.

So Schedin put her talents to work finding a university where she could get academic credit for her work experience.  She found one: City University of Seattle, a private, nonprofit institution that’s at the vanguard of a movement catering to the growing numbers of adult learners and military veterans changing careers in worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And at the end of next semester, she’ll head back into the churning job market with a four-year degree in marketing after just 18 months.

Universities and colleges are being pressed to increase graduation rates and speed up the time it takes for students to complete degrees by awarding college credit for their life and work experience. A national campaign that starts December 3 will promote the sometimes-derided practice with a nationwide program to help adults prepare portfolios of their job experience online that will be evaluated by independent faculty for academic credit.

One hundred institutions in 30 states are on board. The coalition is backed by top higher-education associations and bankrolled by major foundations, including Lumina, Kresge and Joyce, and hopes to reach tens of thousands of people within five years.

The push coincides with President Barack Obama’s goal of boosting the number of college graduates by five million before the end of the decade, and comes as states and higher education institutions are moving away from strict demands for seat time and credit hours.

There’s a growing awareness that Obama’s goal cannot be reached without encouraging nontraditional-age students such as Schedin.

“My goal is to be back in my career,” Schedin said, enjoying some rare downtime in a corner of the CityU cafeteria. “I wanted to get through fast, and I wanted some credit for those years I’ve put in.”

Although the fast-growing ranks of adult learners at some schools are already able to cash in work experience for credit, only a handful take advantage of the opportunity. For example, just two dozen out of CityU’s 2,500 U.S. students have sought such credits, a ratio similar to what other schools report.

“It’s just not happening at the pace or scale it should be, given all these people out there with learning that has occurred in other venues,” said Pamela Tate, president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL, which is behind the new campaign.

One reason is that many faculty look down their noses at the practice. “They still believe that if you weren’t in my class, you couldn’t possibly know it,” Tate said.

The idea of credit for learning from experience also took a hit when Wal-Mart announced in June that it would team up with a private, for-profit university to offer employees academic credit for things they did at work.

“People thought employees at Wal-Mart were getting college credit for learning how to use the cash register,’’ said Marie Cini, vice provost at the University of Maryland University College, the online branch of the Maryland state university system. “If you use a really rigorous assessment process, that is not the case.’’

Credit for work experience can have its downside, even when granted by the most credible institutions. The credits can be difficult to transfer, and substituting them for introductory requirements can cause problems for students later in their careers, when they can’t keep up with classmates in writing or other basic academic skills.

Experiential learning was first tried after World War I, when returning soldiers who enrolled in college were rewarded for their military service by being allowed to skip straight to sophomore year. But they proved unprepared for more advanced work, and the practice largely lapsed.

Low U.S. college graduation rates are helping drive a revival. Fewer than 60 percent of college students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, and the U.S. has fallen from first in the world to 10th in the proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds with an associate’s degree or higher.

For a variety of reasons, increasing numbers of the nation’s 16 million university and college students are older than traditional high-school graduates. Forty percent are 25 and over. And a study by CAEL of 48 schools found that students who get credit for prior experience are more likely to complete degrees

“All of our institutional frameworks have been created around 18-year-olds coming out of high schools without any experience. They’re the empty vessels into which we pour knowledge. But when you’re a working adult, you’re hardly an empty vessel,” said Lee Gorsuch, president of CityU.

”You learn by doing,” Gorsuch added “We’re not anti-intellectual, but can you balance a spreadsheet or can’t you?”

Even more established institutions such as the University of Maryland University College and Valdosta State University in Georgia are beginning to accept credits from experience. “It’s coming back now in a big way because there is this national push from the federal government,” Cini said. “We’re looking for new ways to help people realize that, even if they’ve been out in the work force and have three kids and a busy life, there are ways to get a college degree that won’t take 20 years.”

Universities aren’t doing this solely out of altruism. Adult learners increasingly seek schools that give them credit for experience, according to a survey by the higher-education marketing company Stamats. For colleges, that means the potential for more tuition and more applicants, which enhances an institution’s reputation.

While no one tracks the total number of credits awarded in this way, Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a consortium whose members offer academic credit for military experience, reports that 45,892 students earned 805,473 credits last year for their military training and experience. That’s an average of about 22 semester credits apiece for military students pursuing four-year degrees, which usually require 120 to 180 credits.

Navy veteran John “Jack” McGowan was awarded enough credits for his electronics training and other military experience that he got a bachelor’s degree in half the usual time from Orange, California-based Brandman University, even while working full time. “I went from zero college to a bachelor’s degree in two years,” said McGowan.

Some universities that accept work-experience credits require students to take, and pay for, courses in which they put together autobiographical portfolios for faculty review. Others offer institutional or standardized tests.

“What they’re rating is, does this person have the equivalent amount of learning I would expect a student to have when they finish a course with me?” said Cini.

“From the outside, it looks easy, but it takes a lot of work,” said Anthony Boben, 49, who earned credit from his work experience toward a bachelor’s degree in economics at Lehman College in the Bronx after being laid off from a six-figure accounting job.

Schedin found the process “ridiculously hard.’’ She prepared a 250-page portfolio to apply for credits, and ended up receiving the maximum 45 toward the 180 she needed for a degree. Her classmate Mark Ball, who also lost his job when the economy crashed, was awarded 25 credits for his 22 years as a restaurant manager and music producer. Without them, he said, he couldn’t have afforded the four-year bachelor’s degree he’ll finish next semester after only 18 months.

“It’s like the game of Life,” said Ball, 41, sitting in an empty classroom with the Seattle suburb of Bellevue behind him. “Except I started life first and went to school second.”

This article appeared originally in The Hechinger Report.

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