07/11/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2013

Changing Financial Aid Could Save Students, and Taxpayers, Money: Testimony Before the House Education and the Workforce Committee

Written by Beth Doyle, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

A House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday tackled the question of college costs and whether they could be reduced by various "innovations." One of the topics under discussion is innovative, but it is not new. Since the 1970s, there have been standards in place for assessing learning that occurs outside the classroom - and offering college credit for it. That means you could get college credit if you have college level learning from military or work experience, community service, non-credit online courses, or other experiences. And why shouldn't you get that credit?

For those of us who already have a college degree, there is another question: How are my tax dollars being used? The goal is for Americans to become educated, not just sit through courses to learn something they already know. Imagine someone who spent 10 or 15 years working in accounting or IT - learning while on the job - and then having to sit through a course they could teach themselves. Right now, federal benefits like Pell grants and tax credits will fully cover the class - but will not cover all types of assessments that would let someone earn credit for what they already know.

One in five people in this country right now - over 43 million - have some college credit but no degree. And they are typically working adults. They stopped college for many reasons but mostly because they didn't have time or they ran out of money (or acquired unmanageable amounts of debt). But they didn't stop learning. They have probably had job training, or even significant life experience, that resulted in intense levels of learning. In fact, the internet has taken learning to a whole new level, and not just through reading and research, but now by even offering access to lectures and classes by top professors for free.

So what happened? Why do so few people know they can have their life learning assessed for college credit? Well, some colleges have been slow to adopt the practice (or simply refuse to), even when the practice follows highly rigorous standards of quality. For some colleges that do offer credit for outside learning, the option was buried somewhere in a small department with little funding and little access to marketing resources. A few colleges have built degree programs that fully integrate and rigorously assess learning that is external to their courses - and leverage that to increase their adult enrollments. Unfortunately, there are too few of these colleges and public awareness of this option remains low.

Federal policy has actually hindered this process instead of encouraging it. In her testimony at Tuesday's hearing, Pamela Tate, the president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) stated that "not one of our major financial aid programs explicitly covers the costs... Currently, Pell Grants and Section 127 employer tuition assistance programs either do not allow, or are unclear, about whether this is an allowable expense." The financial aid system is simply not set up to award credit based on assessments of learning. It is set up to award credit based on credit hours - or time in a course.

This policy must change. Allowing students to earn college credit for what they already know makes sense. A research study by CAEL found that adult students with these credits are two and a half times more likely to graduate. And if they graduate, they can search for a better paying job instead of being saddled with debt - and with no degree to show for it. In addition, even though there is a cost to these assessments, CAEL research suggested that earning 15 prior learning credits can save an adult student from a low of around $1,605 at a large public university to a high of around $6,000 at other institutions.

And then there is the time saved. That is time that could be spent in a career, earning more money, able to pay off any debts, and contributing more tax revenue.

Let's support policies that make sense. We can't be penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to higher education and creating a sensible path for the American people to reach their full potential.