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More adults earning college credit for ‘life experience’

Published: Wednesday, April 4 2012 12:47 a.m. MDT

Emma Ferguson, 50, right, is shown on campus at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006, as she walks to a class with fellow student Jennifer Richardson, 19, of Boston.

Associated Press

When she was 40, Gloria Wagner's husband passed away. Overwhelmed with grief, she worried about how she would support her three teenage children. Her work options were limited. She had years of experience working as an accountant and some college credits from Purdue University, but no formal degree. If she wanted to increase her earning potential and improve her job prospects, she had to find a way to finish college.

But the resources required to go back to school felt like insurmountable challenges to the newly single mom. If she worked full-time and went to school part-time it would take several years to finish her degree. "I didn't have time to wait around," Wagner said.

Then the Indiana woman heard about a university just across the state line in Illinois, Governors State University, that allowed students to receive credit for life experience: skills they learned on the job, military service, even volunteer work. A student simply wrote an in-depth report outlining her skills and knowledge and then provided letters from supervisors to verify those skills. Once this was done the work could be assessed for college credit.

Wagner recognized this as a way to get through school, fast.

"I took two weeks off work over the summer and sat at the kitchen table and typed," Wagner said. In that time she completed reports worth 36 credits. Over the next year she took 18 credits in a traditional classroom and graduated with her bachelor's degree. From there she went into a master's program and ultimately sat for her CPA exam. Today she works as an executive for a Chicago-based non-profit organization. "I've tripled my earning power," she said. "I literally could not have done this without prior-learning (credits)," she said, "It's the best thing that ever happened to me."

In the United States, 30 percent of the adult population has no postsecondary education, according to 2008 figures from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a Chicago-based higher education advocacy group. In 35 states, more than 60 percent of the adult population does not have an associate's degree or higher.

While the cost of higher education is high, the cost of not going is even higher. College graduates can expect to earn 80 percent more than their peers.

Studies show that $100,000 spent on college yields a higher lifetime return than an equal investment in corporate bonds, U.S. government debt or hot company stocks, according to the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit.

But getting adults back into the classroom can be difficult. Many juggle multiple life roles while attending school: They are workers, parents, spouses and caregivers, said Jovita M. Ross-Gordon, professor of education at Texas State University. While adult learners' varied backgrounds provide them with rich experience, they are challenged in terms of allocating time and resources to school.

With that in mind, policymakers are on the lookout for techniques that draw more adults into higher education. Getting credit for life experience such as working in jobs, starting businesses, serving in the military and volunteering time is attractive to adults who want to go back to school but feel overwhelmed by what it entails. "To have their learning validated with college credit makes the thought of returning to school less daunting," said Pamela Tate, president of CAEL. Getting credit for things they already know saves adult students time and money, moving them through programs and into the workforce quickly.

Although innovative, prior-learning assessments have vocal critics. Some object to the idea that life experience is equivalent to class time. "It seems like a cheap way to get through," said James Nienow, a professor of biology at Valdosta State University in Georgia. Another issue is the absence of consistent standards for evaluating prior learning. "To assess the skills of students acquired elsewhere seems an imprecise task," Neinow said.

Credit for life

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