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Shifting Perceptions Around Prior Learning

Shifting Perceptions Around Prior Learning
After decades of waiting in the wings in the higher education industry, prior learning assessment and recognition is finally moving to center stage.

One of the biggest mysteries for students in higher education is how to obtain credit for prior learning.

The popular misconception that no learning takes place outside of the hallowed halls of an educational institution is a self-serving bit of propaganda perpetuated by administrators who are running scared. So how do students, particularly adult students, find out about prior learning credit? Where can active-duty military or veterans find information about earning credit for their service? How does a student learn about using tests such as CLEP and DANTES for advanced placement? The simple answer is there are a few specialized resources, but most are scattered about and many college admissions counselors aren’t trained to instruct students on where to find them, much less how to use them. And, frankly, the institution has a vested interest in not publicizing this information because it could reduce the number of credit hours the student would need to enroll in (read: pay for) from the institution.

If you search on Google for “prior learning credit,” you will find a host of individual, mostly for-profit colleges, recruiting students. If you search using the official industry jargon, “prior learning assessment,” you will find CAEL, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which has a service called This service allows students to enroll in a class that promises to teach them how to maximize prior learning; the class costs $129 for the self-paced and $500 for the instructor-led option. Then, if the student wants to proceed, CAEL can charge them up to an additional $500 for 12 to 24 credit hours, and enrollment is limited to the small number of institutions that partner with CAEL. I find it ironic the very organization that sets the standards also charges the student to access them.

There are a few private companies that offer consulting services to students, but most have cumbersome processes and lack the sophistication to provide a comprehensive degree plan that uses all of the available resources. Worse, there are many organizations that promise to help students with a degree plan, but are merely lead generators that sell students’ information to the highest bidder. Years ago, the military used a patented system for degree planning using the SOC (Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges) network, but funding was cut. This system once reserved for the military, however, is now available to the general public. Although is new to the marketplace, they are using the same patented system and SOC agreements to help all students, military and civilian, receive maximum prior learning credits toward their degree while also minimizing the amount of tuition they need to pay. Using guidance from a non-biased educational counselor with no allegiance to a particular institution, this program places the focus back where it belongs: on the student.

For colleges to remain competitive, particularly with the adult student market, they must begin to recognize that learning occurs outside of the institution. As much as I eschew the “M” word, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and all of the hype they have received have forced the academy, accreditors and the Department of Education to re-examine how students acquire knowledge.

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