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How Credit for Prior Learning is Opening Doors to Future Earning for UofL Adult Learners

As of 2019, 36 million Americans had left a college or university without completing a degree[1]. More recent trends show completion rates are stagnating or even declining[2]. Meanwhile, enrollment in higher ed continued its pandemic-driven plunge in the fall of 2021[3]. Yet the need for postsecondary education remains evident. A pre-pandemic estimate by the World Economic Forum indicated that one-third of the global workforce, or more than one billion people, would need to reskill by 2030. The organization has since upped that figure to 40 percent[4]. And while not all reskilling may require traditional degree completion, the pay premium associated with college completion remains evident as well. Between 1979 and 2019, median wages increased by 15.2 percent for workers who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree, while wages fell 11.1 percent for workers who had not earned a degree beyond high school[5]. Uncertainty about the value of postsecondary education often arises when links between learning and work are unclear or absent, an all-too-common factor. A Strada Education Network survey in 2018 found that only about a quarter of adults in the U.S. firmly believe that their postsecondary coursework was relevant in the “real world” of life and work[6].

The University of Louisville’s online bachelor’s of science in organizational leadership and learning (BSOLL) program has stepped into that gap. The program is designed to help adult learners parlay their work experience into academic credentials that, in turn, further advance their careers or jumpstart new ones. Emphasizing a skills-driven approach to degree completion, the program embraces credit for prior learning (CPL) (also known as prior learning assessment, or PLA) as one very tactile link to the workplace. But in the BSOLL program, CPL  is much more than that.

“PLA is a lynchpin of our success,” says Matt Bergman, Ph.D, an associate professor at the University of Louisville and the author of Unfinished Business: Compelling Stories of Adult Student Persistence. “It draws many students to our program by acknowledging the value and expertise that they bring to the academic setting, accelerating their path to graduation.”

Given Dr. Bergman’s experience and expertise, his emphasis on learning outside of the classroom is not surprising. Specializing in student persistence, prior learning assessment, leadership, and degree completion programs, Dr. Bergman is cited in academic journals and media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, NPR, and TIME. Dr. Bergman was awarded the 2018 ACHE South Outstanding Faculty Award, the Metroversity Outstanding Faculty for Adult Learners in 2015, and was a Top 4 Faculty Favorite at the University of Louisville in 2020/2021. He is a Fellow for Complete College America, serving as a teacher, administrator, and ambassador of degree attainment both locally and nationally.

Embracing Past Learning to Reimagine Future Potential

Dr. Bergman admits that students are often skeptical or uncertain about the BSOLL program’s mandatory prior learning assessment class. He describes their initial reaction as a mix of confusion and skepticism. But these are eclipsed by the outcomes the class delivers: transformation and empowerment, qualities that serve students well beyond their tenure in the program. Instilling learners with the confidence that they can advance far beyond their original expectations, it can be the epiphany needed to ignite classroom and career success.

By bridging informal and formal learning, the BSOLL program ignites a passion for lifelong learning. “When students walk in, they are committed to the minimum classes they have to take,” says Dr. Bergman. “By graduation, they say, ‘I love education, I want to learn more, what else can I do?’” But first, Dr. Bergman says, students themselves often must be forced to recognize and value their own prior learning. Hence, the PLA class. “The course helps people reach through the catacombs of their minds to extract value from it and ensure they can acknowledge a demonstrated mastery within their expertise,” he explains. He likens the process to the claw-crane arcade games that challenge players to reach down into a container to extract a prize. “It’s not always easy, but it is always transformational. We are incredibly fortunate to have a committed team of faculty and staff at UofL that pushes to make people feel empowered so they can engage at a higher level in the workforce and intellectually.” Indeed, many students are already planning additional studies, from microcredentials to master’s degrees, by the time they complete the BSOLL program.

Thanks to CPL and transfer credit, that can happen even faster than students may have hoped. BSOLL students receive anywhere from 6 to the maximum of 48 credit hours through CPL, averaging about 24. They can transfer up to ninety hours from a four-year college (sixty for community colleges). As a result, students can complete the program in as little as 12 months. Dr. Bergman likes to offer students a friendlier challenge: “Sacrifice 1.5 hours per night of social media or Netflix, and finish in 1.5 years.”

Meeting Adult Learners Where They Are

The online format also allows participants to moderate their pace even more — including as part-time students. And they have their choice of delivery modalities. “They can take fully online asynchronous courses, hybrid, in-person evening, or any combination of the three options,” says Dr. Bergman. “We find that the convenience of doing asynchronous work during their busy schedules with many competing demands of our working learners is most popular right now.”

That flexibility is something Dr. Bergman wishes more adult learners were aware of. “The program is set up to help people navigate their courses as a component of life rather than the number-one priority in life,” he says. “We have dramatically evolved to be more inclusive of experiential learning, more inclusive of previous academic credit and how it will fit into a program, and we’re trying to find more efficient pathways to graduation for people who even 10 years ago may practically have had to start over.”

But he understands that many adult learners think college today is as it was when they last attended. To stress just how accommodating the BSOLL program is, he likes to offer them an amusing but accurate aphorism: “You can finish at 3 p.m. in your business suit or 3 a.m. in your birthday suit. We don’t care, as long as you do it.”

Praxis Makes Perfect

Whatever they do in the program, students can be confident it is work relevant. Faculty and staff use industry data at the state and federal level to ensure the programs’ nine track choices align with the latest workforce needs. An advisory board comprised of industry leaders, alumni, and other influencers in the Louisville area also helps ensure that the program “has its fingers on the pulse of the knowledge, skill, and ability needs in the current workforce.”

To help students stay on track, the BSOLL program provides a central point of contact in a concierge-like support model. A success coach is available to all students. Recalling some of his earlier research, Dr. Bergman notes that significant life events are often a determining factor in a person’s ability to persist to graduation. “But, when we went a little deeper into the data analysis, that factor didn’t come up as a significant variable because all adult learners experience serious competing demands,” he says. “The more important variable is your support system, which is why we embrace an andragogical mindset and a concierge level of support. When life intervenes, we have to pick one another up and keep pushing forward while maintaining rigor and excellence within our curriculum.” 

The BSOLL program also boasts corporate partners that provide group-rate tuition discounts to employees interested in upskilling or reskilling. “We have back- and front-end support to ensure students graduate with little or no debt at a discounted rate with content relevant and translational to what they do on a daily basis,” says Dr. Bergman, noting that that saves money not just for students but also their employers. “It’s a win all around, because companies can farm out the skilling up of their workforce while supporting our enrollment.”

Today, the BSOLL program offers nine tracks. Tracing its roots all the way back to 1975, when it was known as Occupational Training and Development, it has been evolving ever since. Along the way, it has garnered multiple awards. They include the Association for Continuing Higher Education’s Distinguished Credit Program, the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education’s Curriculum Innovation Award, the ACHE South Distinguished Program Award for Adult Learners, the National Program of Distinction in the American Public and Land Grant Universities’ MVP Award for Campus Based Strategies for Student Success, the Innovation in Educational Attainment Prize from the Gheens Foundation for the advancement of national adult degree attainment, and the Malcolm Knowles Award for the Nation’s top program for Adult Learners.

The BSOLL program added its latest tracks to address the workplace disruption that accelerated during the pandemic. Some, like the diversity, inclusion, community engagement, and equity track, are work-relevant for any sector. Others are more focused on specific industries like IT and health care. All are designed for career advancement. Some feature microcredentials that are embedded within the content as a complement to the degree program. “We want all of our students to earn a badge or certificate on top of the degree to make themselves even more marketable,” says Dr. Bergman.

The program enrolls about 500 students. Many are military connected, fluctuating between about 30 and 40 percent of enrollment. Although most students are from the Louisville area, most states are represented in the program. Student ages span 24 to 72 years.

“We have many mid-level managers from all sectors including corporate, military, non-profit, education, and governmental roles” says Dr. Bergman. That diversity of students is an asset to the BSOLL program, he explains. “It creates a rich environment for robust dialog that can expand the gamut of every experience, competency, and subject matter. As we draw on an andragogical mindset of looking at prior experiences and being problem-centric in how we evolve thinking, it leads to much broader outcomes than rote learning.”

He also noted that such an approach is more reflective and often more effective in reaching people. “Students are saying, ‘I have new skills I can implement. I have done these things, but now I can do them in a new language of what we need to get done in the workforce at my organization.’”

The diversity of student experience also helps drive the program’s continual improvement, particularly in the CPL area. When the program began offering CPL 30 years ago, occupational handbooks served as reference points. These have evolved into an ever-expanding database that catalogs the prior learning students bring to the classroom. For example, it incorporates experiences tied to military occupational specialties. It also includes corporate training certifications and regimens. Together, they establish pathways and a repository of learning equivalence to college credit from multiple military and civilian sectors. In a heuristic process, each new learner who enters the program is an opportunity to incorporate new competencies and make the CPL process all the more seamless for future enrollees. “It gets smarter with each student,” says Dr. Bergman, noting that such self-sustaining efficiency is especially valuable for adult learner-dedicated programs since they typically have fewer resources and capacity than their traditional peers.

All Roads Lead to Success

Although the BSOLL program is geared for degree completion, Dr. Bergman understands that not everyone is focused on a traditional credential. But he argues that everyone needs to continue education beyond high school. Well, almost everyone. Bill Gates and Elon Musk are examples of the handful of exceptions. For most of us, without some form of postsecondary education, “You won’t perform at a high level unless you possess the extremely rare combination of intense self-motivation and a unique collection of knowledge.” In that case, “Instead of a direct formal education, you build massive networks of people who help you learn.”

For everyone else, “You need some form of postsecondary education to help complement what you are trying to do in a career trajectory, whether you like it or not. It is what gets you over the hump.” But again, Dr. Bergman reminds students that today’s pathways to degrees are not yesterday’s. Certificates and other short-term credentials are available that align with workforce needs in the short term while stacking toward longer-term achievements.

When students do want to focus on a degree, the good news is that those pathways can all coalesce within the BSOLL program. “We will evaluate all of their expertise and find a way to translate that into an efficient path to finish a degree,” Dr. Bergman stresses. At that point, they may well find all those incremental learning experiences have brought long-term goals a lot closer.

This is just the latest example of the great work CAEL members like the University of Louisville are doing on behalf of adult learners. To share your success stories, contact marketing@cael.org.

[1] https://nscresearchcenter.org/some-college-no-degree-2019/

[2] https://www.studentclearinghouse.org/blog/national-six-year-college-completion-rate-plateaus-to-60-1-according-to-new-research/

[3] https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates/

[4] https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020/digest

[5] https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R45090.pdf

[6] https://cci.stradaeducation.org/press-release/new-strada-gallup-consumer-data-reveal-only-26-percent-of-working-u-s-adults-with-college-experience-strongly-agree-their-education-is-relevant-to-their-work-and-day-to-day-life

 

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