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How CPL is Accelerating in Southwest Virginia’s Pathways to the American Dream

In September 2017, CAEL joined an initiative of the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Development Board (NRMR WDB) to apply a U.S. Department of Labor grant toward improving credit for prior learning (CPL) practices with 9 of Virginia’s community colleges in the southwestern part of the commonwealth. This project included partnerships with not only those colleges directly, but also with the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). 

The  NRMR WDB recognized CPL’s potential for advancing the grant’s mission to build a talent pipeline of skilled workers in support of regional growth in value-added industries. The grant-backed project, “Pathways to the American Dream,” (PAD) is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. It prioritizes credential completion among un- and under-employed adults to enable career success in high-demand occupations.

CPL allows adult learners to parlay the skills and competencies they’ve developed outside of the classroom into formal college credit, so it’s a natural fit for institutions looking for ways to fast-track adult learners to credential completion. As confirmed by CAEL’s recent study The PLA Boost, CPL improves completion, saves students time and money, and further benefits institutions as students complete more traditional (purchased) credits in finishing degrees.

The VCCS and NRMR WDB focused CPL efforts on nine Pathways community colleges that, for the most part, are in the state’s rural southwest, where displaced workers are an all-too-familiar phenomenon. The nine Pathways institutions are Danville Community College, Lord Fairfax Community College, Mountain Empire Community College, New River Community College, Patrick Henry Community College, Southwest Virginia Community College, Virginia Highlands Community College, Virginia Western Community College, and Wytheville Community College.

CAEL’s intake activities included a comprehensive CPL survey and an application of  the Adult Learner 360 diagnostic tool for each institution. Adult Learner 360 uses research-validated process benchmarking to gauge institutional effectiveness in serving adult learners. Its parallel surveys capture adult learner and institutional perspectives, revealing strengths and challenges within a gap analysis. CAEL also completed CPL policy reviews for the nine colleges.

Based on these three assessments, CAEL provided professional development for each institution. These activities empowered the institutions to develop and implement improvements to CPL and other adult learner-friendly practices over the following two years. In September of 2020, CAEL repeated the surveys to measure progress. 

The nine PAD institutions reported they had adopted more methods of awarding CPL, marketed it more aggressively, and, most importantly, awarded more CPL to students. From 2017 to 2019, the PAD institutions saw an increase in CPL issued for adult learners of 69 percent. Among military students, there was a 58 percent increase in CPL.

Contrasting these outcomes with the other 14 VCCS institutions, which were not a part of the PAD program, provides context. During the same period, CPL for adult learners increased .01 percent and declined 23 percent among military students.

The increases in CPL production occurred against a backdrop of sharply reduced adult learner enrollment. From 2017-2019, PAD colleges saw an 11 percent reduction in adult learners, while non-PAD institutions saw a reduction of 13 percent. This may be evidence that the PAD institutions’ latest efforts to improve in CPL and other areas important for adult learning are already impacting persistence and enrollment. 

It is certainly evidence that the PAD colleges successfully targeted the intended population of adult students. Although adult learner enrollment declines outpaced reductions in traditional students (11 percent vs. 7 percent), CPL growth was most robust among adult learners. 

Several policy changes contributed to the substantial CPL increases. Most of the colleges reported that academic and admissions advisors had increased proactively communicating about CPL. They also increased CPL marketing through social media, printed collateral, and dedicated website pages. Diversity in CPL sources increased, with more colleges reviewing certifications, licenses, challenge exams, and military experience for potential credit. Other enhancements include increased training for faculty and staff, modifications to the amount of CPL allowed, and even wholesale redesigns of CPL policy. 

In summarizing the program results, CAEL highlighted several best practices that any institution interested in increasing CPL can implement. Institutions should move from passive policy to active promotion. During the program, PAD institutions used multiple channels to communicate CPL opportunities, including advising and counseling sessions. This helped translate CPL policies from typical internal, academic language to student-relatable dialogue.

Institutions also realized significant benefits by standardizing CPL transcription. Precise articulation of CPL across institutions simplifies the transcription process, allowing transfer advisors to quickly recognize how and for what subject matter a student earned CPL. This helps map CPL earned at one institution to equivalent courses at the transfer institution, lessening the demotivating risk of credit loss during transfer.

Throughout the program, all participating institutions offered faculty and staff professional development even beyond what CAEL provided through the PAD grant. As institutions consider implementing novel methods for assessing prior learning, professional development will help with universal adoption of CPL by increasing awareness and buy-in. 

Finally, the PAD institutions studied the possibility of evaluating non-credit offerings for CPL to allow them to stack into for-credit programs. Non-credit offerings can be used to backfill course equivalencies and electives where college-level learning takes place. Local and regional employers may be interested in subsidizing some academic work to complete the associate degree and fill jobs requiring it. LIke all CPL, this will help accelerate degree completion, saving time and money and bolstering student satisfaction. 

As is the case with any system, CPL perceptions and outcomes varied across the participating colleges. One constant was that those colleges that made CPL an institutional priority saw the greatest impact from the program. Realizing that CPL is an investment with an ROI that scales with your level of commitment, one college vice president shared that the process has converted him from a prior learning skeptic to a CPL “true believer.”

 

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