Graduating Millions Faster and Cheaper

10/10/2011 05:53 pm ET

If colleges weren't so provincial, the education system could become a lot more productive and stop wasting so many peoples' time and potential.

Jim Hooper, a father of five, earned his first bachelor's degree in 2009 from Thomas Edison State College. The public university in New Jersey has liberal transfer policies, allowing Hooper to apply some old community college classes and earn credit for software skills, paralegal training, and 20 insurance industry exams he's passed over the years, while filling in the gaps at Thomas Edison. Now, Hooper has a durable credential for an unpredictable job market and is thinking about going on to a master's degree. "When I first went to college, I wasn't ready," he says. "But now, I'm proud of what I did and how I finally accomplished it. And I want to keep learning."

There are more Americans like Jim used to be, with some college and no degree (44 million), than there are with a bachelor's degree (41 million). While the debate rages on how to control soaring costs in higher education while simultaneously pulling America out of 10th place globally in educational attainment, these people are the country's low-hanging fruit. Allowing them to transfer old credits and certify their lifelong learning, a practice called prior learning assessment, would boost the job prospects of these working adults, graduating more people in less time for less money. And it could even be good for learning.

Up to three-fourths of education after high school happens outside the college and university system, in classes provided by companies and nonprofits, like the ones Jim took in the insurance industry. This is to say nothing of the informal learning that adults accumulate every day. Prior learning credits can be earned by passing an exam or submitting a portfolio that documents learning, whether attained through workplace training, continuing education, volunteering, or running a business. Research has shown that students who earn credits in these ways are more likely to persist and complete their degrees. Moreover, through the act of writing a learning narrative and assembling their experiences into a portfolio, they become more self-directed, more self-assured, more reflective, and understand their own learning styles better. And it's far cheaper than making students sit through a class to certify what they already know.

Prior learning has been around for at least 60 years. High school students are familiar with Advanced Placement exams, which can allow them to test out of a college requirement. After college, DSST, CLEP, and UExcel are all national college-level exam programs that work the same way. There's also an existing national credit recommendation system, CREDIT, offered by the American Council on Education (ACE). You can earn credits on an ACE transcript by passing a test or completing certain types of skills training, like a Microsoft software certification.

As for credit by portfolio, it's the specialty at a small group of public colleges in the Northeast: Empire State, Excelsior, Charter Oak, and Thomas Edison. At these schools, faculty members oversee the portfolio process and recommend students for credits while helping them connect the dots from their previous life experience to the degree they want to earn. This spring, the nonprofit Council on Adult and Experiential Learning piloted, an attempt at a national credit-by-portfolio system. People who successfully complete the portfolios, with essays, recommendation letters, and other evidence of learning, will be recommended for ACE CREDITs. The program costs just $500 for a six-week, three-credit portfolio course plus $50 for each additional credit the student wants to have evaluated through a separate portfolio. You can earn up to 48 credits of a typical 120-credit bachelor's degree in this way.

This is more than an expedient way to earn a few credits; it's a glimpse of the future of learning. Exams and portfolio services such as LearningCounts offer a ready path to incorporate the past decade's revolution in free and open courseware--online resources made available by MIT and hundreds of other colleges--into the existing educational framework, making a college degree more affordable, accessible, authentic, and self-directed. Around half of college graduates complete internships for credit because we as a country recognize the value of learning outside the classroom. Prior learning turns the world into the classroom. What if completing a free Khan Academy physics module and building model rockets could mean credit for college physics? What about watching an Open Yale college course in economics online and chatting with other learners through a platform like OpenStudy, to supplement your real-world experience as a small investor, and putting all that towards a degree in business?

The pieces of the system are in place now. The remaining barriers are cultural and bureaucratic. ACE CREDITs are nominally accepted at almost 1800 colleges, but only a tiny percentage of students currently use them. Whether they truly believe in the superiority of their own offerings, or they want to maintain a short-term competitive advantage, the vast majority of colleges currently limit the transfer credits they accept, even from institutions within their own state systems. Frustratingly, students usually can't get a final answer on the status of their credits until they've already decided to enroll. Getting ACE CREDITS, to say nothing of portfolios, accepted requires persistence and patience with red tape.

This provincialism has to stop. A strong national policy favoring an emphasis on prior learning is the rare innovation that could save money, graduate more underserved students, and improve learning all at the same time. Plus, it would mean more parents like Jim Hooper making their kids proud.

The following is adapted from my new free ebook, The Edupunks' Guide, sponsored by the Gates Foundation. Download the ereader version here and a PDF here: