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Bringing Prior Learning to the Forefront

The College of St. Scholastica, a Roman Catholic college in Minnesota, has developed a degree completion program aimed at working adults who hold some college credits but have not completed a degree. The program’s real innovation will be in the prior learning that they will be looking to award college credit for; from learning gained outside the classroom to learning from Massive Open Online Courses.

“I’m really intrigued by this so-called disruptive technology,” Larry Goodwin, St. Scholastica’s president, told Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed. “It does seem to provide at least the possibility of making the higher education business model less expensive.”

Each adult student in the completion program will be assigned a faculty member or counselor who will provide them support towards completing their degree. The college has said they will accept up to 96 credits from elsewhere and count them toward the student’s bachelor’s degree. Those credits could include transfer credits from a community college or another four year institution. Also included are credits earned through prior learning displayed by a portfolio, or by passing tailored tests or commonly used examinations. A minimum of 32 credits must be earned from St. Scholastica.

St. Scholastica is part of a growing number of institutions who are looking to recognize the prior learning of adult students as the United States looks to increase its numbers of degreed citizens. Pioneered by institutions like Western Governors University and the University of Maryland University College, prior learning is finding homes across the higher education industry. Southern New Hampshire University and Liberty University have also developed robust prior learning assessment and credit models, but St. Scholastica’s model focuses largely on the transferring and awarding of credit.

This move isn’t without its critics, though. The President of the Council of Independent Colleges, Richard Ekman, said that while many colleges are beginning to award credits and degrees on the back of prior learning, there are concerns as to the quality of the knowledge being rewarded.

“I worry a lot about the coherence of degrees,” Ekman told Fain. “There’s got to be an informing philosophy of education.” Price is a major factor for adult students looking to this non-traditional approach to degree completion as well. While a full degree program at St. Scholastica could run a student up to $30,000, taking a prior learning credit approach to their education could save students $5,000 on their education.