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The Impact of Increased Competition on Completion Colleges

The EvoLLLution | The Impact of Increased Competition on Completion Colleges
Collaboration between completion colleges and more traditional higher education institutions is absolutely critical in today’s environment to support improved attainment rates.

In a competitive market such as higher education, it is unusual to take the stance that collaboration and sharing are the right things to do. However, with an estimated 31 million people in the US with some college but no degree, it is in the best interest of the student—and arguably our nation—for those colleges well versed in the awarding of credit for prior learning to share their “secret sauce” with more traditional institutions seeking to serve the adult student.[1]

Those working in the prior learning assessment arena have noticed a sharp increase in interest from other institutions wanting to design programs and develop policies that facilitate the awarding of credit for learning acquired and demonstrated outside of the classroom. Instead of viewing this influx of interest only as competition, it can also be viewed as a great opportunity—a hard-earned one at that. It could be that the “completion college,” now well into its forties, is finally having a turn in the spotlight, and the impact for such institutions has been substantial. Consider the benefits:

  • Increased attention and dollars from key funders such as Gates and Lumina to create and assess credit-for-prior-learning initiatives and competency-based programs;
  • Recognition from the USDE in the form of experimental sites initiatives that extend tuition assistance for alternative approaches such as prior-learning assessment, competency-based education and now, through EQUIP, creative partnerships with innovative providers:
  • Increased focus on quality assurance methods used to determine the scope and rigor of non-institutional learning.

More importantly, attention from the traditional sector, even if in the form of increased competition, lends an imprimatur to the work of the completion college and supports the fact that institutions offering credit for prior learning have not been watering down education and simply handing out degrees for life experience. Such attention gives credence to the long-held idea that learning is not confined to a classroom and, more significantly, that such learning can be substantiated in an academically rigorous way.

These new competitors to the market may also have additional positive impact for the completion colleges: competition spurs on improvement in any sector. In this case, improvement comes in the form of better, more efficient student services. With an increased number of institutions offering credit for prior learning, completion colleges must look at their existing policies and practices, such as transfer policies and transcript evaluation, through a more critical lens to identify and mitigate any potential enrollment barriers.

While it is clear that some institutions new to the prior learning field are looking to increase enrollment and retention—and awarding credit for prior learning is an effective means to both ends—there is another intangible benefit for students. In 2010, CAEL research supported the benefits of awarding credit for prior learning in terms all institutions care about: increased persistence and completion rates. They found that students with earned prior-learning credit were 2.5 times more likely to complete a degree.[2] What is not entirely measurable is the notion that recognizing the skills and knowledge a student already possesses creates a sense of self-efficacy and motivation for students who may have thought a degree was beyond their reach. Why would completion colleges want to keep that to themselves?!

Fortunately, there are collaborative efforts underway in the credit for prior learning arena. One such example is the Consortium for the Assessment of College Equivalency (CACE), a six-college collaboration officially formed in 2015 among Thomas Edison State College, Excelsior College, Charter Oak College, SUNY Empire State College, Granite State College and the Community College of Vermont. CACE launched with the mission of increasing access for working adults through the sharing of each institution’s academic credit evaluations of workplace training programs and industry credentials.

This sharing removes transfer credit barriers for students, saves member institutions time and money by avoiding duplicate evaluations, and has resulted in a set of standards to govern the academic review process. Better yet, the group has made their standards available to interested institutions under creative commons licensing.

When more institutions look at ways to award credit for prior learning, everyone wins. Within the context of the college completion agenda, competition and collaboration can co-exist to the benefit of intuitions and students alike.

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[1] Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Yuan, X., Harrell, A., Wild, J., Ziskin, M. (2014, July). Some College, No Degree: A National View of Students with Some College Enrollment, but No Completion (Signature Report No. 7). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

[2] Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: A 48-instition Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes. (2010, March). Chicago, IL: The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

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