Getting a Head Start

Receiving school credit for skills and learning acquired outside the classroom

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As workers jockey to position themselves more competitively in the marketplace, strategic options are limited. And with so many industries ramping up their demands to increase their own competitiveness, prospective employees must have specific skills and training. If you’ve been in the job market or the military for 10, 15, 20 years, the idea of going back to school to either finish a degree or obtain one can be discouraging, particularly if you’re unemployed. A Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), however, which is an evaluation of previous work, study, and life experience that can be applied toward credits in obtaining a degree, may provide the encouragement you need.

“A lot more colleges across the country are open to flexible ways students can complete their degrees quickly and cost-effectively,” offers Jody Lindquist, the director of enterprise learning at Herzing University, a regionally accredited campus and online postsecondary school that offers a number of programs, including several for candidates with military backgrounds. “We try to find as many ways as possible to validate learning that has already taken place and to help students map out where they are today and what they need to do to graduate.”

Herzing evaluates its prospective students through a partnership with LearningCounts.org, a PLA resource of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Herzing is just one of more than 100 institutions in the LearningCounts.org network, says Cathy Brigham, director of academic programs at CAEL. In its 2010 study, Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success, CAEL found that students who use PLA credits were 21/2 times more likely to graduate than those who don’t. “My experience tells me that the success of students who use PLA credits has a lot to do with quelling student fears,” says Brigham. “It’s demoralizing to go back to school and, because of red tape, have to sit through a course that you already know the content of.”

Brigham and Lindquist work to ease back-to-school anxieties:
Credits can come from a variety of areas. “Many people come with professional learning from a prior work or business setting,” says Brigham. “It might be someone who has had a military career. We also [work] with a lot of students with a liberal arts or performing arts background, as well as heating and air conditioning and trade fields. And we have people coming in with more core courses: English, history, literature, and things they may have learned through field study.”

Past college credits are probably still transferrable, stresses Lindquist. “With the exception of certain math and writing courses, it’s a myth that credits expire.”

The process begins with an easy 30-minute evaluation conducted over the phone. “It’s an online service,” Lindquist explains. “The students can request an advising session just by filling out a form. Through a natural conversation with a trained adviser who knows what kinds of questions to ask, the student starts to disclose more information.” The conversation is also geared toward discussing areas of interest, and where and how these skills and talents might be applied.

There is no charge for the evaluation. The charge for choosing courses and assembling an academic portfolio to be accepted at an institution will vary depending on credit costs.

Brigham believes that students maintain high levels of success and completion because “They get affirmed that their life is counting toward something. It’s a way to accelerate their progress and to give them self-confidence.”

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