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Chris Samuels, Deseret News
Medical assistant student Rosy Morales, right, checks the temperature of instructor Terri Smith at the Jordan Campus of Salt Lake Community College in West Jordan, Monday, June 29, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns who started college but didn't complete their degree may have a way back in that gives them a head start for the knowledge and experience they gained while in the workforce.

It's a timely opportunity for Utah, which in 2013 had the highest percentage of adults who started college but didn't finish, second only to Wyoming, according to a report by the Lumina Foundation, a national higher education advocacy group.

Starting in August, Weber State University's professional sales department and Utah Valley University's criminal justice and university studies programs will be piloting the LearningCounts program. With help from the Utah System of Higher Education and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, educators hope to see how prior learning and competency-based instruction could be more widely used in the state.

"I just think this is a great opportunity for the working professional to get credit for their real-life work experience," said Tiffany Evans, director of program completion at UVU. "We're (a) very educated (population), but some college doesn't equal a credential, so it may help those individuals to come back."

The LearningCounts program will include a class to help returning students develop a portfolio that identifies the skills they gained while out of college. Then a faculty member will determine if the student's skills match up with learning objectives for certain courses.

Through the program, students can earn up to 25 percent of the credits required for their degree or certificate at a cost "much lower than tuition" that includes mostly course fees, according to Brian Stecklein, associate director for continuing education at Weber State. Most students, he said, can expect to earn about nine credits through the program.

"I think this is an interesting opportunity as another way to take a look at learning and validating that learning for students," Stecklein said. "Helping to encourage people to come back to higher education and understand the importance of it and that they can do it, I think, is probably the important part of this project."

In 2013, Utah's percentage of 25- to 64-year-olds with some college but no degree was second-highest in the nation at 28.13 percent. That's up from the national average of 21.76 percent of adults in the same category, according to the Lumina Foundation report.

Utah ranked near the middle — 31st in the nation — in terms of highest proportion of adults with a degree, at 41.6 percent. That's up from 39.2 percent in 2009 and just above the national average of 40 percent.

That was roughly the starting point for Utah when state leaders announced the goal of having 66 percent of working adults with a degree or certificate by 2020. But part of staying on track will have to include reaching out to that 28 percent who started college but never crossed the finish line, according to Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education.

Educators hope the LearningCounts program will accelerate that effort.

"This pilot works to address some of those specific returning adults' needs by giving them credit for work experience and other life experiences that could translate into college credit," Heath said. "Really, college completion is something that is at the forefront of minds of the board of regents. It's an important priority for our state to get these students back in and completing a degree."

Giving students credit for prior learning is not new to Utah. Salt Lake Community College began such a program last fall in its School of Applied Technology, giving students credit for skills instead of seat time in careers such as welding, clinical medical assisting and others.

The program, which was developed thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, allows students to advance at their own pace and still be eligible for financial aid. Though the program is still in its initial stages, college leaders say it could eventually become a model for other departments to follow.

"We are excited about our competency-based education initiative in large measure for these reasons — that we can meet students where they are in terms of their work experience and competency and help them advance as quickly as possible," said Clifton Sanders, provost for academic affairs.

Evans said higher education leaders hope to gauge students' interest during the program's first year and how well it helps students earn credits that count toward their degree, not just elective courses.

"It's a pilot right now, but we hope that it will be something that we will take a hard look at, evaluate and see if it's a value added to the institution, and most importantly, for the students," she said.

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