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This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Colleges have long provided students with college credit for learning acquired before ever setting foot on campus. Working adults have leveraged their military or career experience into ‘credit for prior learning,’ or CPL, since World War I. This recognition of non-institutional learning can be earned by demonstrating competencies that are equivalent to college-level learning.

Despite its longevity, perceptions of CPL are mixed. Some college administrators and faculty still question its academic rigor. Others are concerned about the financial implications for their colleges, pointedly asking, “Why are we giving away credit for free?” But recognition of non-institutional learning is positioned to deliver a financial win for students, colleges, and employers, too.

Acknowledging learning that happens off campus can 1) save students time and money in pursuing their education and career goals, 2) provide colleges with a potential tool to boost student success, and 3) provide employers with a cost-effective way to recognize and certify learning.

All Learning Counts!

Interest is emerging in new types of Learning Recognition models. These new models capitalize on learners’ existing capabilities, and create stronger pathways from in-demand, job-related credentials to further education, as a way to:

  • Move adults into jobs more quickly;
  •  Increase advancement opportunities once on the job; and
  • Support learners’ continuing education.

rpk GROUP is working with three higher education organizations to learn more about the business model behind these programs. We plan to look at program cost structures and the potential financial benefits these programs bring to colleges, universities, and higher education systems. Our partners include:

  1. Mi Casa Resource Center – providing job training aligned with individual assessments and banking-related credentials developed by partners Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Community College of Aurora.
  2. SUNY Empire State College – evaluating job training programs for four national and regional employers, including CVS Health. 
  3. Virginia Community College System – evaluating industry certification programs in five industries for inclusion in an online portal representing all 23 VCCS colleges.

We frame the potential return on investment (ROI) for these new ALC initiatives around three questions:

1.     ROI for whom?

Recognition of learning appears beneficial to students. They enjoy cost savings, improved completion rates, and shorter time-to-degree completion. And what’s good for students can also be good for colleges. For example:

  • Recognizing non-institutional learning can incentivize adults to enroll in college, which generates new tuition revenue.
  • Students who earn credits for their prior learning typically complete—and pay for—more credits once on campus.

State-funded higher education systems, like VCCS, also become more efficient when institutions work together to reduce duplication of effort and increase credit transfer and transparency among colleges.

States and employers gain from investments in recognition of learning, too. While not part of rpk GROUP’s research, individuals with the credentials, education, and skills to fill in-demand jobs strengthen state employment and can boost tax revenues. Recognition of non-institutional learning can provide a return to employers as well, generating cost-savings by reducing duplicative learning activities and potentially shortening workers’ time to credential. Tuition assistance programs are shown to create returns themselves.

2.     How do colleges generate a financial return?

The ‘return’ to the college relies heavily on enrolling and retaining adult students. Cultivating a pipeline of new student enrollments is key for Learning Recognition models. Research shows that adult students with CPL earn an average of 54 institutional credits once enrolled—10 credits more than students entering without CPL. About 63% of these students continue to earn credits beyond their first year of study, compared to only 40% of those without CPL.

Learning Recognition processing fees sometimes provide a revenue stream. Colleges typically charge fees only when their own faculty administer and grade individual assessments. Mi Casa Resource Center adopted this model, with its partner institutions charging a reduced rate for credit for prior learning at half the full credit price.

No Cost to Students Models. College credit awarded through whole-program evaluation models, such as those at SUNY Empire State and VCCS, are usually offered at no direct cost to students. These models, which evaluate employer/military training and industry certification, may charge a credit evaluation fee to training or certification providers. SUNY Empire State no longer charges these fees to avoid conflicts of interest when determining what learning is worthy of credit. VCCS will not generate fee revenue either, since it selects which certifications to review, rather than offering its evaluation as a service line.

3.     What kind of investment is required to generate a financial return?

Many colleges already have traditional programs in place that incorporate prior learning into student transcripts. Initial conversations with our three partner institutions show the primary investments these new models include:

1)     Faculty and staff costs (time, compensation and/or stipends) to conduct credit evaluations, course crosswalks, and/or development of exams and rubrics.

2)     Technology costs for information portals or data collection and analysis.

3)     Other operating costs such as marketing/recruitment. Some models, like MCRC and SUNY Empire State, are investing in new credential pathways as part of their Learning Recognition activity. VCCS is instead investing in technology to provide more comprehensive information about linkages between prior learning credits, credentials, and jobs.

These programs also expect ongoing costs, such as periodic review/revision of the programs, credits evaluated, and technology-related costs. At the same time, these new investments may introduce efficiencies that reduce existing costs for current CPL processes.

Framing the investments in these programs alongside anticipated financial returns will hopefully provide a clearer answer to those wondering why colleges seem to be “giving away credit for free.”

Looking Forward

rpk GROUP will be working with its partners throughout 2020 to build out the framework for evaluating partners’ investments in these initiatives and their respective potential returns. Additional blog posts are planned to describe new tools and approaches that capture and share ROI, offer insights on lessons learned from the data, and describe best practices to guide evidence-based investment decisions for new Learning Recognition models.

This blog is the first in a three-part series to consider the potential return on investment from ‘recognition of non-institutional learning’ (RL) initiatives funded by Lumina Foundation.

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Donna Desrochers

Donna is an associate at rpk GROUP.