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Creative Degree Pathways Save Non-Traditional Students More than Money

Creative Degree Pathways Save Non-Traditional Students More than Money
Adult and continuing education units need to exercise creativity in helping non-traditional students receive the most credits for their learning

Non-traditional students arrive on your university’s doorstep today with a motley assortment of educational and employment puzzle pieces in need of your assembling. The idea that all students start college in the same place is simply a myth, as non-traditional students increasingly possess varying years of work experience, a mix of credits from two- and four-year colleges, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) learning, military service, employer-based programs and prior learning assessment (PLA) exams and portfolios.

To ask non-traditional students to start their degree all over costs them money, but it also costs them time and self-confidence. Instead, pushing institutional boundaries on what is typically thought of as learning and credit allows us to be better stewards of non-traditional students’ resources and demonstrate value for their experience.

Of course, this reality poses both challenges and opportunities to adult and continuing education divisions. The two main challenges entail how to honor what non-traditional students bring to the admissions table and, second, once they’re enrolled, how to provide a customizable degree program — one that allows them to learn and earn credit in the most holistic manner.  The opportunities for nimble non-traditional programs include the opportunity to attract these students and retain them, because their college experience with you will be the most individualized and innovative one they can find. Student benefits begin with financial savings but extend to much more. Let’s explore these challenges, opportunities and benefits.

To expect non-traditional students to complete their entire degree through traditional credit-bearing coursework at one university is a massive improbability. As administrators in professional and continuing education, one way we can assist non-traditional students in their transition to our university, as well as improve our enrollment numbers in the process, is to approach a student’s admissions portfolio and degree plan with an open mind. Non-traditional students often carry “baggage” and can submit some pretty messy transcripts. It is not the case of a nice, neat transcript with a 3.0 GPA and an associate’s degree. We know non-traditional students may have five transcripts, some with cumulative grade-point averages of less than 2.0 from 20 years ago — and that’s just their traditional coursework.

Colleges and universities need to become increasingly willing to honor more forms of learning that takes place outside the classroom. Instead of a student receiving only 30 transfer credits from the three colleges they previously attended, look for every avenue for possible credit. One way is to delve into transcripts provided by the American Council on Education (ACE). At first glance, it may appear a military veteran has only received two credits for physical education at your college out of all that the ACE has recommended. It is important at that point to really match up the ACE transcript with the student’s plan of study; for example, is there a leadership recommendation that could fit in an Organizational Leadership major, or a supervision piece that could count toward a Management major? Track down department chairs that will approve those matches along with examples of how other colleges handle those recommendations to support you and include them in your requests to the Registrar.

Beyond ACE transcripts, using the National College Credit Recommendation Service for employer-based programs can also help non-traditional students get the most credit possible for their prior learning. However, if you simply cannot convince your colleagues to grant credit for learning through certain military and work experiences and — you may want to sit down — MOOCs, don’t forget your selection of classic PLA methods. Encourage non-traditional students to use the portfolio process in place at your college to demonstrate the learning they gained through a MOOC, for example. Take advantage of institutional credit-by-exam opportunities like departmentally-created challenge exams in areas not offered by the College Level Examination Program. In one instance, I have even known a student to take a Straighterline course through a university that accepts it and then transfer it through that university to his home institution in order to get the credit. Creativity is a must to help non-traditional students receive the most credits for their learning.

The payoff to confronting these challenges is not just numbers based. Yes, innovative programs will attract and retain students who, because of these creative credit pathways, find those programs more accessible and affordable than others, and your enrollment will grow. However, the benefit to the students — that you respect, from day one, what they have accomplished in their lives — far outweighs what they would pick up after two weeks of classes. With this kind of mosaic degree, accomplished with some transfer work, a little PLA — and we didn’t even discuss competencies (next time!) — higher education will cost less money and take less time, allowing non-traditional students to more quickly meet workforce needs and personal goals that will improve their families’ futures.

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