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Colleges Consider "Prior Learning" When Awarding Credit

March 18, 2010

by Agnes Jasinski

As the number of returning adult students continues to grow and the "traditional" student population has only become more diverse to include those with backgrounds and life experience in varying fields of study, some schools are looking at rewarding those new students with credit hours for "prior learning," rather than prompting them to start over as most freshmen do.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education explores schools that consider academic achievements alongside individual accomplishments before students step onto campus, and look at their volunteerism, years in the military, or on-the-job training, among other life experiences. Formal assessments of those experiences are then used to evaluate incoming students as a way to award them credit hours, often as a replacement of general education coursework.

At Valdosta State University, professors conduct assessments of students' experiences by having them demonstrate what they already know about a certain field. The Chronicle describes a biology professor who awards credit to students who may have a background in science from volunteering to clean up local streams, for example, or lab experience. The school has been conducting such assessments for about a year and a half; the program started when the school decided to begin training students who had come from non-traditional backgrounds to become teachers.

At Empire State College, which is part of the State University of New York, students are able to write their own degree plans. Faculty committees and administrative offices review portfolios students craft based on their work experience in a particular field, for example, and determine how many credits students should receive based on that information. The school's administrators say having the students reflect on what they've learned before going to college helps them realize their potential and make obvious the kinds of skills they may have, as they are forced to put those talents on paper. At Inver Hills Community College, students are asked to complete two courses at the school before attempting a portfolio, which not only involves writing about their past experiences, but being able to discuss them.

Other schools conduct more standardized tests and formal assessments for students to demonstrate prior learning skills, such as the American Council on Education's evaluations of work and military training or the College Level Examination Program tests. According to the Chronicle and Stamats, a higher-education marketing company, the availability of credit for life experience is the top thing adults look for when selecting a school in their college search. About half of all schools have some kind of prior learning assessment available to students, according to the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, so if you're a returning adult student, consider that the work you've already done could save you some time—and money—as you take on that college experience.


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