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Education innovators are incubating new ‘recognition of non-institutional learning’ (RNL) models that reward college-level learning, regardless of where it is acquired. If this sounds familiar, it’s because colleges have long awarded no- or low-cost academic credit to students using prior learning assessments (PLA), standardized exams, portfolios, or evaluations military or work-related programs that recommend credit for prior learning (CPL). 

Newer RNL models, however, aspire to do more than just add academic credits to transcripts. They stand apart because they are tightly connected to the workplace in their design and implementation. They are thoughtfully designed so that academic credit awards are aligned with credentials leading to in-demand jobs. 

It is hoped that these streamlined models will move adults into jobs more quickly, increase advancement opportunities once on the job, and support learners’ continuing education. 

rpk GROUP recently partnered with three organizations to look at the business model behind their RNL programs. Our study found that these programs can be financially beneficially for colleges when carefully designed. So, we also dug deeper to determine: ‘What features make these RNL programs financially sustainable?

Our study partners’ initiatives represent a variety of approaches, sectors, industries, and credentials:

Lessons drawn from the financial and design attributes of these programs suggest that RNL approaches must be designed with financial sustainability in mind. RNL programs that are financially secure are better positioned to serve students over the long-term. 

After reviewing the financial structures and program design of our three study partners, several best practices emerged. Promising RNL models:

  1. Adopt designs that easily scale to large numbers of students and intentionally plan for student recruitment. Enrolling new students is a surefire way to generate new tuition and fee revenue and accelerate the financial ‘return on investment’ (ROI). Models that evaluate programs, such as military or workplace learning programs, typically exhibit more built-in efficiencies than models that evaluate individual students. Even so, the ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach can lead to underutilization of any type of program (at best), or challenge financial sustainability (at worst). Clear strategies around student communication and recruitment are essential to boost awareness and enrollment.     
  2. Align with strong student and labor market demand and have the potential to generate paid credit hour activity. RNL programs designed with an eye toward in-demand jobs will be easier to market to students as they enhance post-graduation employment opportunities. Similarly, when colleges design education pathways that enable students to capitalize on existing college-level skills, students can leverage those skills into credentials that boost their career opportunities.
  3. Benefit from less ‘active’ management of ongoing operations to minimize costs. RNL initiatives that evaluate entire education and training programs (rather than individual students) usually frontload their investment into the initial evaluation process. These programs have minimal ongoing operating activities and are less costly to maintain, which produces a positive financial return more quickly. It also requires fewer years to ‘recoup’ those initial program investments, because fewer new costs accumulate annually.
  4. Capitalize upon technology, coordinated strategies, and routine processes to create efficiencies that support sustainable business models. RNL initiatives can operate more leanly and reduce resource investments when they take advantage of existing approaches and momentum. Coordinating strategies and initiatives across partners, systems, and even the broader CPL field minimizes duplication of work, decreases development time and costs, and focuses attention on new and innovative practices. Establishing standard credit evaluation processes and policies also reduces the time (and expense) of evaluating industry education and training programs and students.
  5. Recognize academic credits for prior learning at no cost or low-cost to students, creating a ‘loss leader’ that produces subsequent net revenue. RNL fees can provide a sustainable source of funding for ongoing operations, but fees are a less significant source of revenue than the tuition generated from students’ credit hour activity after receiving initial credit for non-institutional learning. Recouping foregone revenue from awarding prior learning credits depends more on students’ subsequent course taking activity than upfront fees. 

The RNL initiatives launched by our three study partners demonstrate that there are many ways to recognize college-level learning that leads to credentials and careers. The ‘ideal’ RNL model is the one that best meets a college’s objectives, market demand, and students’ needs. But it must also be designed and managed in ways that ensure it is both financially sustainable for colleges and financially beneficial to students.

Donna Desrochers

Donna is an associate at rpk GROUP.