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Credit for your service

More colleges give prior learning credits - but should they?

Sep. 19, 2012 - 04:42PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 19, 2012 - 04:42PM  |  
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Georgia Army National Guardsman Timothy Brown got six credits for military service toward a criminal justice degree at Gainesvill State College. He estimates the credits saved him $800.

"That's almost half a semester for free," the 23-year-old said.

Colleges in Georgia and across the country are awarding prior-learning credits to help older students earn degrees more quickly and more cheaply. Georgia, in particular, is working to increase the number of degree-holders because about 60 percent of future jobs will require a post-secondary education, while only 42 percent of Georgians have one. The University of Alaska system allows up to eight elective credits for one calendar year of active-duty service; and the University of Wisconsin System recently unveiled a similar Flexible Degree program.

Not everyone has welcomed this change. Critics say awarding credits for prior learning works better for vocational programs in which the goal is to certify people who have specific skills.

Debating a ‘radical change'

Prior learning isn't just giving students credit for life experience, according to advocates. Colleges that choose to offer the credits measure what students know, review how that corresponds with courses those students are required to take, and determine whether their knowledge merits college credit, said Trish Paterson, executive director for college access initiatives for the University System of Georgia.

"We are honoring what a student knows, even if we are not the reason why they know it," Paterson said. "This is some radical change for the world of higher education."

Johann Neem, an associate professor of history at Western Washington University, contends that students who receive prior-learning credits miss out on the knowledge gained in the classroom by interacting with professors and classmates. Class discussions are just as important as tests, papers and reading assignments because they expose students to new perspectives and challenge them to think differently, he said.

"At the end of the day, we want students to leave not just with new knowledge and skills, but with a sense of curiosity and wonder," Neem said. "That means that the class experience is vital to cultivating the intellectual character that ultimately defines what it means to be a college graduate."

Claiming their credits

Georgia students can receive up to 30 credits through prior learning, and most degrees require at least 120. Students typically earn three to eight credits for prior learning, said Jerry Merwin, director of adult academic degree completion at Valdosta State University. That's as much as $1,262 in saved tuition at Valdosta State.

Students who want prior-learning credit enroll in a course, now offered at 13 colleges in the university system, that teaches them how to prepare a portfolio showing why they deserve credit.

Merwin was the first professor to teach it, in 2008. Colleges developed learning goals for about 30 courses ranging from nursing to criminal justice to American Sign Language. Students review the goals and syllabi to see whether their skills and knowledge match up, he said.

So far, 83 students have earned 312 credit hours through prior-learning assessment, according to university system data. The system enrolls about 318,000 students.

Faculty trained to assess the portfolios review them and recommend whether students deserve credit. Faculty assessors do the bulk of the work, but recommendations are reviewed by others, Merwin said.

The university system has long used prior learning as a way to award college credit to service members and veterans. It works with the American Council on Education, which reviews military training and experiences and makes credit recommendations. More than 2,300 colleges recognize the transcripts the group produces.

Other adult learners said it can be difficult to decipher the prior-learning process. Advisers don't always have all the information, forcing students to rely on one another and information posted on websites, Martin said.

Some faculty members have a difficult time accepting that students can learn material from someone other than them, Merwin said.

"It is hard to say there is one best way of learning information," Merwin said. "There was a lot of skepticism with online learning, but now there is comfort with it and we see the advantages and benefits of different types of learning for different types of students."

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