‘Debits’ for Prior Learning? Why Some Transfer Students Skip CPL
Have you ever invested time and effort to participate in a special promotion but were disappointed when you tried to reap the rewards? Perhaps you tried to cash in a bevy of hard-earned frequent flyer miles at a partner hotel only to be met with a wall of blackout dates (or vice versa). Unfortunately, when it comes to credit for prior learning, some transfer students are all-too familiar with such frustrations, and the ramifications are a lot more serious than traveling in affordable style.
Allegra Fowler is executive director of the Center for Prior Learning Recognition at Purdue University Global, a CAEL institutional member. She has witnessed the insidious impact transfer denial can have on otherwise robust CPL programs. When exploring academic partnerships, Fowler began hearing from colleagues at CPL-forward community colleges that some excellent candidates were not pursuing CPL. But it wasn’t for the usual reason, lack of awareness. On the contrary, it was precisely because they were aware of CPL. But what had caught their attention was the unfortunate reality that CPL credits would likely be lost in transfer. Students who planned to continue to a four-year degree were foregoing CPL because they knew they might have to repeat that credit at their transfer institution. “That was a kind of a lightbulb conversation for me,” said Fowler. “It showed we really needed to do something.”
Fowler is doing something, along with several fellow CAEL members. They have formed a working group within CAEL’s online community of practice to consider the challenges of CPL transfer and propose practical solutions. The diverse group represents a range of higher ed entities, from multi-campus university systems to small-town community colleges.
By collaborating, the members, who recently met for the first time, want to shift the narrative around CPL as transfer credit. “This workgroup will first validate, discuss, and acknowledge that we’re facing the same type of problem, maybe from a different place in the workflow,” said Fowler, who is pleased that the group contains adult learner advocates who work at different points in the student lifecycle. Because so many CPL students face plenty of other challenges to completing a degree, she thinks there is a real chance for the group to create a significant positive impact. “Students are already putting in such an effort to earn CPL in the first place, it’s our responsibility to conceive of pathways for not having to go through that effort again at another institution,” she said.
CPL Adds New Complexity to an Old Problem
The problem of transfer losses is not a new one. Back in 2001, CAEL supported the Joint Statement on the Transfer and Award of Credit, along with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the American Council on Education. The statement argued for enhancing both CPL and transfer policies. Still, in 2017, the GAO reported that transferring imposed a penalty of about 43 percent of students’ credit. So it’s not surprising that the workgroup is confronting challenges that arise at the intersection of transcripts and CPL.
In fact, many institutions categorically disallow direct evaluation of nontraditional grades from a student transcript. Often, the practice is to confirm institutional accreditation, then exclude from consideration any credit that did not earn a traditional “C” or better grade. Fowler recalls this practice from the very start of her work evaluating transcripts, 15 years ago. “For the longest time, we weren’t aware that there was another way to look at this problem. Now, we are excited to be part of this conversation with CAEL to drive forward solutions that will not shortcut potential credit.”
A Student-centric Model Is Needed To Reverse an Upside-down Mindset
Fowler says the “upside-down mindset” of deliberately detouring around CPL is one outcome of building CPL programs without directly considering how they might impact transfer students. The irony of that mindset was apparent in an example shared by another member of the workgroup, who said that it can disincentivize students with military experience from disclosing their joint services transcripts. This is because even if an institution doesn’t accept CPL transfer credits as part of completion requirements, they can still generate “surplus credits.” Students’ resulting “super senior” status can endanger their financial aid eligibility.
To be sure, the workgroup understands part of ensuring academic rigor is verifying that each unit of academic credit has universal value, something that depends on a transparent vetting process. That is why it hopes to break down barriers and influence solutions on a practical level. The idea, said Fowler, is to stop making students “bear the brunt of our system complexities and the differences between institutional models.”
Feast or Famine: From Double-counting to Discounting CPL Credits
One approach that would sit well outside any set of practical solutions would be indiscriminately counting all CPL transfer credit. That could flip the problem from discounting to double-counting, especially as more four-year institutions embrace CPL. Transcripts provide details about the “destination” of CPL credit, i.e., in which classes it was applied. But details are vague regarding origins. In theory, the same learning experience could create transfer credit for students from their old institution and CPL credit from their new one.
Although the threat of double-counting CPL because of student-friendly transfer policies could be overblown (one participant likened it to exaggerations of voter fraud), the working group agrees it is vital to defend the academic integrity of CPL transfer credit. After all, the CAEL community has fought for more than four decades against other efforts to discredit CPL, such as the notion that it is simply “credit for experience.” (It is credit for the college-level learning acquired through experience.) On the other hand, dually processed CPL could diminish, rather than duplicate, credits in some cases. This can happen when two institutions have appraised the same source of CPL at different levels. If a four-year college doesn’t offer the same program that accepted the CPL credit at a two-year college, for example, it may lack the faculty expertise to fully appraise the CPL source. Typically, that institution’s decision on credit would supersede whatever students had previously received.
A Transparent View of the Future
With transparency clearly being key to improving CPL transfer for students and institutions, the working group hopes to identify ways of appending additional data to the transcript process. Such data could clarify disparate CPL practices. For example, checklist items affirming adherence to CAEL standards for CPL might provide a starting common denominator for CPL experts at different institutions. Supplemental information could also assuage fears about double-counting CPL. Knowing where, when, and how nontraditional credit was earned would allow different institutions to complete fair and accurate evaluations of CPL transfer credit.
Improvement might also come down to trusting faculty more and reexamining parochial levels of control, especially since geography doesn’t constrain college choices as it once did. With the rise of online learning, students are more mobile. Ideally, their credits would be too. “With the increased mobility of students between institutions, it becomes increasingly problematic to focus exclusively on practices at our own institutions. A solely intra-institution focus will limit our ability to set students up for success along their academic career,” said Fowler.
She also thinks more clarity around CPL transfer will address concerns about rigor and thoroughness at other institutions, increasing confidence in their faculty assessments. She noted that many times, differences in how a CPL source is appraised come down to faculty expertise. Typically, the institution with more insight can validate a more detailed view of CPL credits from program-aligned prior learning experiences. “These disparities in credit are really less about approaching the work differently than about where institutional expertise exists in depth,” she said. “Where one faculty doesn’t have the expertise, it could be beneficial to coordinate our efforts, and maybe lean harder on what others have done, in order to share the burden of CPL alignment.”
Ironically, the workgroup has unearthed examples of CPL transfer policies that are already enshrined within policies of accrediting bodies. Some even address the very issues the group is exploring. Workgroup member Tony Sheppard, a professor at Sacramento State (another CAEL institutional member), referenced the university’s regional accreditor's guidelines for CPL that call for the ready availability of documentation regarding the nature of the CPL credit earned, as well as the avoidance of CPL that would duplicate either prior CPL or remaining coursework requirements. As noted earlier, simply furnishing such information could also help reduce the loss of CPL credit in transfer. However, such policies, even where practiced, are inconsistent across regions and institutions.
Perhaps that is because, however useful it might be, incorporating supplemental transcript information could be a big task. Questions the workgroup is considering include whether it could be an automated process to avoid a prohibitively labor-intense new workflow. This is an important consideration not just for small community colleges with limited staff, but also within the complexity of multi-campus state systems. Another issue is whether information systems could allocate space for the additional fields that would be required.
For now, the group is happy to have carved out a space within CAEL’s community of practice dedicated to fostering discussions and an accessible framework from which to address the challenges of CPL transfer credit. It is focusing on a “version one” solution, which would include proposed universal standards for exporting relevant information from student information systems.
Until the workgroup meets again, these discussions will continue at caelCONNECT, the online platform where CAEL members can join and form such workgroups and participate in a continual exchange of established and emerging best practices.
Information about how to become a CAEL member is available at cael.org. If you are a current CAEL member and are interested in following this work more closely, or joining the workgroup, reach out to Carolyn Swabek, director, community engagement, at firstname.lastname@example.org.