Pennsylvania's Community Colleges Offering Credit for Life Experience

by | February 9, 2015

By Susan Snyder

Anthony Caso has 15 years of experience in law enforcement, but no college degree. At 42, the East Norriton Township detective noticed that younger, better-educated officers were joining the force and his contemporaries were going back to school.

Jean Cahill, 50, of Brookhaven, likes working with breast cancer patients at Delaware County Memorial Hospital as a licensed practical nurse, but where she wants to go requires a nursing degree.

Mher Vartanian, 20, of Lansdale, dug "Disney College" in Orlando, where he learned management and communication skills, but hated to lose time toward his associate's degree.

Each has found a way to get college credit for that real-world experience.

Montgomery County Community College awarded Vartanian six credits for those Disney courses (which he says were actually harder than his community college courses).

Cahill collected 18 credits from Delaware County Community College. And Caso got 27, nearly halfway to his associate's degree in criminal justice at Montgomery County Community College.

The students earned the credits through "prior learning assessment," a process by which students collect college credit for certifications, coursework, volunteer experience, exams, portfolios, or other types of demonstrated learning.

"It's a cost savings for adult learners, but it's really a time savings," said Kathrine Swanson, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at MCCC.

Colleges have been awarding the credit for decades, but it's varied from school to school and been little used, officials say. With the focus nationally on getting more people to complete degrees -- adults who get the credit are two and a half times more likely to graduate, a national study found -- that's starting to change.

To encourage more people to complete their degrees, Pennsylvania's 14 community colleges last week announced the launch of the "College Credit FastTrack" (ccfasttrack.org) site, designed with a $2.5 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to help students complete portfolios online and learn how else to receive credit for previous learning.

It's Pennsylvania's first effort to standardize the process and comes as other states are looking at their systems.

"What we're seeing is a move toward more comprehensive implementation . . . that's going to meet the needs of all kinds of students coming on to college campuses," said Mary Beth Lakin, director of college and university partnerships at the American Council on Education.

Most colleges, Lakin said, have some kind of system but students often aren't aware of it or struggle to use it.

To get credit, students must show how their previous learning equates to what they would have learned in a specific course. A portfolio might include a resumé, information on training, and essays on how the student applied his or her learning.

The process has its critics, who question whether the learning is adequate or whether it's giving away tuition dollars.

Caso got credit for nine courses: introduction to criminal justice, criminal law, introduction to criminal forensics, criminal procedural rules, criminal investigations, police department organization, safety and first aid, incident management, and public speaking, Swanson said.

For that, he showed he had graduated from the Philadelphia Police Academy and an FBI detective school and had taken a Montgomery County detective supervisory course and a state police criminal investigators' course. He also showed he had certification in incident management from Auburn University, and that he teaches law enforcement classes.

A single father with a daughter in college, Caso plans to complete the courses for his degree online.

"I appreciated how Montco took into consideration my . . . law enforcement experience, my training and expertise; but more so how seriously they scrutinized each detail so I knew the 'life experience credits' weren't just given away either," Caso said in an e-mail.

The credits were free. The college doesn't charge for reviewing certifications and coursework. If a learning experience is not nationally recognized or has no standardized curriculum, a student must submit a portfolio, which costs $125.

Vartanian was happy he could get credit for the organizational leadership and corporate communications classes at Disney. He's using money he earned working at Epcot to help pay for his associate's in business administration. He wants to work for a hedge fund.

For Cahill, nursing is a second career. She has her bachelor's in English and spent 20 years in marketing and communications.

"I needed to do something that was more relevant to me," she said, and always admired her grandmother, a nurse. To get her nursing license, she logged 700 clinical hours, which are being applied toward her associate's degree, which she's on track to get in May in applied science.

"I didn't want to accrue any more debt at my age."

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