President Obama’s focus on degree completion has highlighted the need for a more effective way of obtaining credit for life and work experience. An essential — but underused — strategy for attaining the nation’s educational objectives is to enable working adults to receive college credit for successful completion of their workplace training programs.
Despite a long history in our country of awarding such credit — dating back to the 1940s, with the awarding of credit for military training, followed by a push in the 1970s to include business and industry training — working adults still face significant barriers to receiving credit for knowledge and skills accumulated outside of the classroom. In fact, of the 145 million people currently in the workforce, a staggering 60 million have no post-secondary education¹. Thirty million have some college experience but no degree.² These statistics point to the larger issue of a major skills gap facing our workforce. The New York Times reports that “the skill level of the American labor force is not merely slipping in comparison to that of its peers around the world, it has fallen dangerously behind.”³
In light of such evidence, it is time for leaders in business, industry and higher education to work together to eliminate the barriers that stand in the way of awarding credit for rigorous business and industry training programs. All this serves to create effective partnerships. Prohibitive policies, a lack of clear evidence of learning and a lack of awareness and support contribute to those barriers at both the business/industry and institutional levels.
1. Prohibitive Policies, Practices and Regulations
Some states have seemingly arbitrary regulations that limit the amount of credit which may be awarded for prior learning, and institutions in those jurisdictions may be restricted in the amount of credit they can award for training programs. While regional accrediting agencies review an institution’s prior learning assessment (PLA) policies and procedures, they generally do not impose credit limits. The biggest barrier, then, remains within many traditional institutions, which have outdated policies preventing students from receiving credit for any learning that takes place outside of the traditional classroom setting. Although there are many fiscal and faculty-driven reasons for such policies, institutions must consider how their policies and procedures discourage working adults from enrolling in and completing degree programs. Even adult-friendly institutions have to continually question their current enrollment procedures and degree requirements to be sure they’re facilitating success for working adults. Ultimately, institutions are missing an opportunity to bridge the skills gap if they do not create partnerships and degree programs that align with the demands of the workforce.
2. Evidence of Learning
To facilitate such relationships and ensure a smoother transition from workplace training to college credit, employee training programs must provide a formal, objective assessment to gauge employee learning. Not only does assessment ease the process of providing credit equivalencies, it also provides employers with valuable return-on-investment information about the efficacy of their training programs, particularly if assessments extend beyond the end of the formal program and track employees’ application of knowledge and skills learned. Institutions can work with employers to design and administer assessments and help employees reduce time and money spent on duplicative courses. This piece of the PLA puzzle will become even more important as competency-based programs grow and proof of competencies becomes the common language spoken between employers and educators.
3. Awareness and Support
Employers may not realize their training programs often merit college credit equivalencies, and they may not know where to turn to provide such a value to their employees. Further, employees may apply to a college degree program without knowing they may be able to receive credit or advanced standing for workplace learning. When credit is attached to training programs, both employers and institutions must go further in their efforts to publicize this value-add, work to promote the benefits of education and ease the credit transfer process for employees.
In-house, employers can do much to enable their workforce in the pursuit of a college degree or certification by providing time during work for study, convening employee study groups and offering tuition assistance, scholarships, promotions and other incentives. In turn, institutions can provide flexible scheduling, online learning, direct assessment opportunities, on-site academic advising and individualized degree programs that meet employer and employee needs.
The consequences of not working to remove these barriers are grave for institutions, employers, students and the nation. Fortunately, there are examples of synergistic partnerships among business, industry and education that can serve as national models, and there are experienced leaders at institutions founded on the principles of PLA who can help our country shape policies that work for workers.
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 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Washington, DC
 Lumina Foundation (June 2013). A Stronger Nation through Higher Education
 Eduardo Porter, “Stubborn skills gap in America’s workforce,” The New York Times, October 8, 2013. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/09/business/economy/stubborn-skills-gap-in-americas-work-force.html?_r=0
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