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A Common Language for College Credit


The EvoLLLution | A Common Language for College Credit
It’s critical to establish a level of uniformity when it comes to speaking about postsecondary credentials and credits in order to restore student and public trust in the value of higher education.

While attending an international conference recently, I was struck that all of the attendees—who came from Africa, Southeastern Asia and Europe—used English as the lingua franca of the event. (Those spared my rusty French were probably grateful; for those who were subject to it, I apologize!)  Using a common language allowed us to establish and discover common priorities, socialize, and to collaborate to effect change.

Yet in higher education, we do not have a common language to discuss the value of a college credit. At an event hosted by Jobs for the Future and Higher Education Advocates,called Paving New Pathways: Today’s Students, New Credentials, and the Next HEA, I noticed a recurring theme: There is a serious issue with college credit transfer policies across postsecondary education. Courses that count for credit at one institution do not “translate” to another. This issue has real consequences on student success and degree completions.

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, students who transferred between colleges lost 43 percent of credits. Consider the magnitude of losing almost half of the credits a student has paid (or taken out loans) for when more than a third of students, on average, will transfer between colleges.

Students bear the brunt of inefficiency in college credit transfers. Those who have to repeat courses due to transferring between institutions still carry a financial burden for lost credits. Credit loss has even more dire financial consequences for students who have attended some for-profit schools, who on average could lose 94 percent of their credits once they transfer.

What then, does a credit signify and how do we make it work for transfer students?

What Is the Currency of College Credit?

Though “credit hour” traces back to Andrew Carnegie and his funding of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the actual Carnegie Unit was a measure of class hours for high school study requirements for college eligibility (120 classroom hours). The college credit hour is based on that metric, and reaching 120 hours of study is the requirement for a Bachelor’s degree in most disciplines.

The credit hour is used as a unit of measure of workload for professors and students; for administrators, it is fully ingrained in billing and financial aid decisions. But is it the best measure for learning?

The time requirement does not really address what a college credit signifies. It’s possible that institutions may have good reason not to grant lenient course credit transfer. Course equivalencies essentially “pass” students into the next level of a given subject, so it is important that students are prepared with a basic knowledge or mastery before moving into the next course. Again, this suggests a unit of measure is needed outside of time, and more closely related to the knowledge the student has acquired.

Learning Outcomes and Competencies

Other models of assessing learning do exist, and often come into play when reviewing the credit value of a learning experience. For example, student learning outcomes or competencies covered in a course may determine a course’s value.

Linking learning directly to competencies, and doing away with time as a measure, seems an easy fix. However, that raises the question of how to determine the standard set of competencies?

Currently, each institution has its own measure for establishing credit equivalency, which can be based on different interpretations of accreditor standards. Credit equivalencies are often also established by individual articulation (or transfer) agreements between institutions. This may mean, for example, that Algebra 101 at a community college could be counted more favorably than Algebra 101 at a competing four-year college.

Unfortunately, in a recent and more concrete example, students of the now-defunct for-profit Education Corporation of America campuses are now learning that their credits may not transfer to other schools.

An uneven application of equivalency standards can often make it more difficult for students to recognize, and earn recognition for, all of the learning they have acquired.

Students are not Getting Enough Credit for What They Know

Few students know that they can often earn college credit for college-level learning acquired outside of a college classroom, including training (especially military training) they have received, and may have progressed further toward a degree than they realize. Adult students can and should seek out schools that have prior learning assessment programs, or offer credit for prior learning or credit by exam. These are more affordable ways to earn college credit for what students already know, or can learn quickly at your own pace.

There are organizations, such as the American Council on Education and its ACE CREDIT program, and the National College Credit Recommendation Service, that evaluate external programs for college credit equivalency. Additionally, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) also provides guidance to colleges and universities to create programs to recognize learning that takes place outside of the college classroom, and offers some resources to students. (In full disclosure, Saylor Academy’s Direct Credit courses are recognized by the American Council on Education and NCCRS, and Saylor Academy is a member of CAEL.)

Calling for a Common Language

What is the more important student learning outcome: mastery of subject matter, or time spent learning?

If mastery is the goal, competency-based delivery methods could work with prior learning and direct assessments to create pathways, and create degrees and credentials that translate to employable skills. Seat/work time requirements, or the combination thereof, should continue to include opportunities for direct assessment (or credit by exam) to help students affordably accelerate through a degree program.

There is a continued and increasing need for this common language. According to the research from the Lumina Foundation, over 36 million American adults have earned some college credit but have not yet attained a college degree. If these potential students are to return to higher education, they will need policies that account for their knowledge obtained in the classroom and through other rigorous learning experiences.

Further, as lifelong learning or “re-skilling” becomes more essential to remain competitive, students will need easier ways to translate their existing knowledge into new programs. A key impediment to creating these pathways is a common standard to help credit translate from one program to another, let alone trying to translate credentials from one skill set to another.

How does creating a common language of standards help?

  • Better Onramps for Students. Common standards create a fair venue for credit transfer decisions to be made on behalf of students. Reviewers have the opportunity to compare “apples” to “apples” in terms of competencies or of time spent, reducing unnecessary credit loss for learners. Transfer students will have the opportunity to plan their degree paths, moves between institutions or returns to degrees.
  • Expanded Opportunities for Prior and Accelerated Learning. With a common set of standards, alternative credit providers (including some employee training providers) will have a clear directive to create quality content that is meaningful for their students.
  • Improved Completion Outcomes. According to CAEL, adult students who are able to transfer credit are 2.5 times more likely to graduate than those with no credit.

A common language for college credit would enable institutions, alternative credit providers and regulators to eliminate barriers to students by communicating standards for credit transfer eligibility. This transparency will reduce course credit loss and redundancy, as well as reduce the time and financial burden transfer students bear from lost courses.

Higher education needs its own lingua franca in terms of college credit to restore student and public trust in its value. It’s time we come together and speak the same language.

What you can do if you are a:


1. Propose and/or support measures for guaranteed transfer between community college and four-year institutions

2. Propose/Support measures to guarantee acceptance of prior learning and “credit-by-exam” credits reviewed for college credit, such as those reviewed by ACE, NCCRS or similar entities.

College or University Leader

1. Publish your transfer and credit equivalency policies, or use services that allow students to compare transfer credit acceptance.

2. Create transfer policies that support adult learners that may have college-level prior learning or be able to accelerate their matriculation with credit by exam programs.

3. Treat similarly reviewed programs the same. Many schools have policies that are accepting of more well-known credit by exams, however, do not note that other training programs with a similar review status have the same academic rigor.


1. Contact your destination college to learn how your courses may be treated. Find out if an associate’s degree grants you automatic advanced standing. Your state may also have a guaranteed transfer agreement in place.

2. If you are an adult student, look for programs that accept credit for prior learning or conduct PLA (prior learning assessment) and have generous policies. You can also earn credit by examfor subjects you already know or self-paced study, in many instances.

3. You may need to determine if your previous institution was regionally or nationally accredited. You can find this information on the school’s website.