How to Determine Whether Real-World Experience Should Count for Credit

By Rebecca L. Weber

With a national focus on completion, College Credit FastTrack, a prior-learning assessment program in Pennsylvania, aims to help students finish their degrees faster.

Pennsylvania hopes to boost completion rates in the state’s 14 community colleges with its new prior-learning recognition program, College Credit FastTrack (CCFT). Backed by a $2.5 million U.S. Department of Labor grant, the initiative will help qualified adult students earn their degrees more quickly and less expensively.

“We are new to this,” says Mary Frances Archey, vice president of student success and completion at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC), in Pittsburgh, adding that the concept itself isn’t new to the college.

College Level Examination Program tests, Advanced Placement and credit for military training were already in place at CCAC as alternative means of earning credit for work-life experience. But the CCFT initiative is the first prior-learning assessment at a statewide level, so it may well be seen as a model program for other states to learn from.

“In this age of distance learning, students can get credits from a number of different institutions and compile a degree that focuses on one area.”

Since the kickoff a few weeks ago, several dozen people have expressed interest in applying to CCAC. Potential credit-earners consult with an adviser before preparing an online portfolio and applying to CCAC.

For example, a student petitioning for music credit might create a portfolio that includes an essay as well as a link to a YouTube video that showcases his or her performance.

Applicants pay a $129 fee to CCFT for assessment of their prior-learning portfolio, of which the college will receive $125. By comparison, a three-credit class currently costs $315.

“If they’ve never been at [CCAC], they would have to become students,” says Archey, adding that all applicants will receive a welcome letter from the college.

Not just giving away credits

Any notion of just getting credit for “life experience” will evaporate in the face of course-specific requirements. An online portfolio must reflect demonstrated mastery of the subject matter, with learning experiences that match with a given course’s syllabus.

The streamlined system is ideal for certain students. Archey gives an example of a nontraditional student who started off with data entry in a job straight out of high school, and who has learned on the job, progressing through the same company’s accounting department. In order to be promoted further, the employer requires a college degree — yet the student can already demonstrate mastery of the skills offered in an introductory course. In this situation, CCFT would enable the student to begin studies at the appropriate level.

CCAC staff receive additional compensation for reviewing student portfolios to ensure specific education in the real world matches knowledge learned in the classroom, upholding the integrity of degrees.

“Are they going to be as qualified when they bring the credential to an employer? Are they going to be prepared? The answer is, absolutely,” Archey says. “If they can’t do what the curriculum calls for, they are not going to get the credit.”

Career readiness

As in many other states, Pennsylvania has a lot of adults with “some college,” but employers often don’t know how to interpret that status on a job application. Does it mean one course was completed? Or that the applicant is just a few credits shy of completing a degree?

The Department of Labor’s backing of the initiative underscores the emphasis on earning a degree to help people in the workforce and is part of a $450 million, multiyear grant program to develop relationships between employers and community colleges.

“When a student completes a credential and puts ‘college associate degree’ [on the job application], that has value. It tells an employer that they have a concentrated body of knowledge, and that they graduated,” Archey says. “The aim is not to pile up credits. The aim is to earn a credential that is recognized.”

Has your campus experimented with new ways of recognizing prior learning? Tell us about it in the Comments.

Rebecca L. Weber

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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