Community college students often follow a non-linear path to, and within, academia. The experiences they bring from real life—the same ones that make the college environment so vibrant—are often hard to translate into actual credits and can make for a complicated and unnecessarily long path to degree.
Helping students convert prior experiences into credits is a challenge facing every community college. Working at one of the largest and most diverse colleges in the country, I saw this manifest in many ways. The most common scenario we encountered was the student looking to transfer coursework from one or more prior colleges. But we also advised students with less common prior experiences; degrees from foreign countries, military work, and credentialed professional experiences. Many students looked to get credit for skills through prior learning assessments (PLA) or credit by exam.
Unfortunately, vague or complicated policies, organizational barriers, or generic advisement can prevent us from helping students get credit—literally and figuratively—for these prior experiences. As important as maximizing credit articulation is, it can be a real challenge for advisors and a real source of demotivation for students if not handled properly.
I’ve studied this issue at length and highlighted three proven tactics your college can deploy to help students get more (and faster) credit for prior experiences.
1. Appoint a team or expert to support adult students on campus
Community college students often report their experiences on campus feel impersonal and that potential progress is stymied by generic support. For example, one of my students was a military spouse. Every time her family moved she “started over,” and in many of these cases, lost time and credits. Most colleges simply handed her a form and told her to send transcripts, but never offered her suggestions for how she could receive credit for courses that didn’t transfer. No one at her other colleges had suggested PLA or course substitutions. Without this insight, she faced repeated academic setbacks as the military moved her family around the world.
We solved this issue by appointing a team of advisors that would specialize in adult student support. Over time our “adult advisors” became experts in the unique scenarios that adult students face, allowing them to provide more personalized and effective support. Incredibly, this targeted support resulted in fall-to-spring persistence rates of 81%, compared to 58% among other adult students at the college.
2. Make credit for prior-learning policies crystal clear
As one student told me, “Transferring in my credits was my biggest battle.” This is not an uncommon sentiment or one to be taken lightly. Faced with too many failure points, false starts, or bureaucratic dead ends, potential college “completers” may drop out altogether.
Often students who would qualify for PLA find college websites incomplete, or they’re presented with incorrect information about PLA. Yet, our studies show adult students who receive credit for prior learning persist at higher rates than those who do not. More than half of students who receive credit for prior learning go on to earn at least 80% of the total credits required for degree completion, as compared to less than a quarter of students who don’t pursue credit for prior learning. Students receiving credit for prior learning also graduate at 2.5 times the average rate.
A good starting point is to conduct proactive outreach to students who have potential transfer credits or military experience, but it’s even better to think expansively about this kind of outreach. Students with professional experiences or foreign education could benefit from PLA as well. The key to this practice is the timing: Students need early and persistent nudging to prevent them from needlessly enrolling in duplicative coursework. The average community college student graduates with 21 excess credits, and this is one common root cause. Using students’ application data to craft a proactive email at the beginning of their first term written in simple, plain language, can yield much-needed momentum.
3. Give credit for a diverse array of foreign languages
For many years, colleges awarded foreign language credit only for Spanish, German, and French—the languages most students studied in high school. However, not only do today’s students have more options for language study in high school, but colleges are seeing an increase in students who are fluent in dozens of different languages, well beyond the traditionally credited ones. The good news is there are now college equivalency exams to match this diversity.
In recent years, New York University and Brigham Young University have each developed exams for more than 50 different languages, so students can now demonstrate proficiency in languages including Korean, Russian, or Farsi. Because foreign language credits can often be used for required language proficiency or humanities credits, these credits can reduce time to degree for many students. Expanding foreign language credit policies to reflect today’s diversity isn’t just the right thing to do culturally, but it can ensure more students get credit for their lingual fluency.
Let students know they are supported
Many students I worked with shared that having an ally and an advocate in the college staff—someone “in their corner” as one of my students put it—was the key to their success. College students are incredibly busy, juggling many competing priorities while they pursue their dreams. The prior experiences they bring to college from real life are so unique, and their grit and determination is admirable. We owe it to them to provide holistic support—early, clear, and personalized. After all, it can be the difference between a stop-out, a drop-out, and a degree.
Since the peak of the recession, community colleges have experienced steady declines in enrollment of adult learners. Our white paper outlines how community colleges can retain and engage post-traditional students.