We live in a world where learning opportunities exist everywhere, in both formal and nonformal settings. Large-scale online courses, corporate or other workplace learning opportunities, skill or competency-based short courses, and self-paced learning modules are offered by institutions and third-party organizations alike. Over the last decade, AACRAO (American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers) has explored the institutional policies and practices related to the award of credit for prior learning as we move toward a more inclusive, equitable post-secondary ecosystem that recognizes and values the diverse experiences and knowledge of learners.

Our latest report on the Landscape of Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) is a mixed report card on institutional use of prior learning assessment practices. With 82 percent of institutions reporting the availability of pathways, it shows that there is a recognition of the importance of acknowledging alternative forms of learning. Just under half of those institutions also report an increase over the last three years in the evaluation of prior learning for credit.

But it’s also clear that while opportunities to access nonformal and nontraditional learning have multiplied, institutional capacity, in the form of policies, practices and systems has not kept pace with the explosion of learning opportunities.

Predictably, the integration pathways for the least formal opportunities are quite low, while practices that employ external examinations or trusted third-party evaluations are the most likely to be widely adopted. An excellent example of this is the 91 percent recognition of U.S. Military experiences. While not explicit in this report, a review of catalog data from the AACRAO/College Source Higher Ed Policy Central shows that a majority of institutions employ the use of the ACE Military Guide and the ACE National Guide to advise them on credit conversion for military experiences. What we now know is the existence of clear information about the program that shares learning and skill outcomes combined with an academically aligned evaluation process administered by a trusted third party requires the least institutional resources to implement and mitigates institutional risk around academic integrity. There are lessons to be learned from this process.

The reality is that in order to increase the effectiveness of prior learning assessment in higher education, we should build on our successes.

Because the barriers are numerous. Our higher education institutions report that assessing prior learning is time-consuming and resource-intensive. There is an additional business disincentive to awarding credit for prior learning, as prior learning credit fees are lower than tuition fees. Additionally, those fees generally do not have any accompanying financial assistance for learners who might seek credit for prior learning.

It will be important to develop financial models and fee structures that make CPL more sustainable for both institutions and learners alike.

Another identified barrier is an information barrier—information about internally established protocols as well as information about the learning experience is required in order to effectively apply prior learning assessment. Awareness of the practices and policies around CPL is low amongst institutional staff and faculty, which leads to low awareness in student populations.

Better articulation of policies and practices can create the transparency that is required for their expanded use.

Emergent noninstitutional credentials or even institutionally designed nondegree credentials lack consistency of information that would ease the pathway to assessment. AACRAO and UPCEA have previously identified this barrier, and have collaborated on a new conference called Convergence, which seeks to connect the credit and noncredit side of institutions in order to strengthen the noncredit-to-credit pathway. This kind of collaboration and partnership, both within the institution and across academic and workforce credential providers is crucial to creating transparency and extending the assurance of quality—and therefore the extension of the trust network—under which all academic mobility operates.

Another set of barriers are those pertaining to policies. More than half of institutions will not accept the assessments of credit for prior learning awarded by another institution.

This means that more than half of institutions who will accept credit from each other do not trust the validation of external learning that was done. This is a serious mismatch between policy and mobility goals that requires a change of paradigm that will require collaborative education between practitioners in the transfer and records space and academic administration in order to ensure that the trust extended in traditional academic mobility can be extended to prior learning assessment.

The same lack of consistency exists when learners start in different pathways. Learners who begin as traditional freshmen have separate CPL policies from those who enter as transfer learners. It’s likely that such policies have a root in the business-case barriers, or from siloed practitioner divides between freshman and transfer-learner intakes. Ultimately, AACRAO always encourages policies that are both transparent and consistent among learner populations.

Policy barriers that pertain to accreditation may be more perceptual than real.

Institutional colleagues often cite accreditation restrictions on the acceptance of credit and limitations on credit for prior learning. A review of related accreditor policies did not surface major barriers, although stronger language toward equitable practices from accrediting bodies may help motivate institutions to examine their overall practices.

The enterprise that is higher education is diverse and requires a great deal of collaboration to meet mobility goals. Practitioners often innately hold the solutions to the challenges we face, but no single stakeholder group has the whole picture. We must work together across professional sectors to solve the challenges we face and remember that we will require a different approach to collaboration—an approach that sets aside individual institutional or organizational ambitions to move the “system” forward. Our collective learner, professional and national futures depend on it.

AACRAO is working to remove the barriers to learning mobility. The work is necessarily centered on the learner and equitable outcomes. If we do this work well, we begin to remove structural barriers to the achievement of equity for all learners. Want to join us? Email [email protected].

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