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CAEL Pathways Blog

How Prior Learning Can Help Students Accelerate Into the Future of Work

White Paper Reviews Impact of Credit for Prior Learning on Adult Learners in SSC's accelerated associate of applied science

This week, South Seattle College, a CAEL institutional member, published a white paper highlighting the impact that CAEL-validated principles of adult learning have had in its SBST,   Sustainable Building Science Technology, degree program. While credit for prior learning takes center stage, the paper also demonstrates how aligning curricula with current and emerging workforce needs, inclusive programming, and other strategies contribute to adult learner success.

The college's most recent exemplar of these initiatives is MOET, Multi-Occupation in Engineering and Technology, Associate of Applied Science - transfer degree (A.A.S.-T). The MOET A.A.S.-T creates accelerated STEM pathways for adult learners like Rebecca Silva, a manufacturing worker, and Kyle Salquist, a U.S. Navy veteran. They include energy/sustainability coordination, engineering technician, facilities and operations maintenance, and service technician in building automation. In addition, the MOET A.A.S.-T prepares graduates to enter the SBST bachelor's degree and other related bachelor of applied science degree programs across Washington State. These bachelor's programs unlock additional career pathways.


Download Case Studies on Rebecca and Kyle

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In fact, the development and outcomes of the highly successful SBST bachelor's degree were significant factors in the genesis of the A.A.S.-T. Supported by an NSF Expanding Lifelong STEM Career Pathways in Sustainable Building Science Technology grant, the bachelor's program incorporates a robust rubric for assessing and awarding CPL, includes more than a dozen articulation agreements, and features the flexibility of online and weekend class options. As a result, the SBST B.A.S. boasts an 81 percent persistence rate, outperforming SSC's aggregate rate by 5 percentage points. The Northwest Energy Efficiency Council and Washington State University's energy program recognized the success of the SBST B.A.S. with the 2017 Energy/Facilities Innovation Award. The honor noted SSC's "innovative approach to training facility managers who specialize in running 'smart,' energy-efficient buildings."

These achievements - and how they were realized - inspired and informed the A.A.S.-T, including three takeaways the white paper attributes to the design and performance of the SBST B.A.S.:

  1. Ever-evolving industries require educators to incorporate experiential learning in programs to ensure students develop the latest competencies.
  2. The diversity of students pursuing occupations within the field creates economic and societal benefits.
  3. Most students in the B.A.S. program are working adult learners looking to further their careers, highlighting the importance and potential of CPL.

SSC conducted additional labor market analysis and consulted CAEL research to complement these findings and further inform the planning and rollout of the A.A.S.-T.

The A.A.S.-T's approach to aligning learning and work is centered on two salient workforce challenges, one quantitative, the other qualitative. The former, the white paper notes, is a basic lack of applicants who possess the competencies needed in positions now and in the future. The latter is "a lack of diversity in all aspects of the workforce." While many industries struggle to find qualified talent, the white paper argues the challenge is felt particularly hard in the sustainable building science and technology industry. It cites 2021 research showing that in Washington, clean-energy jobs are 11 times more prevalent than fossil fuel jobs, a gap that will continue to widen. The research also showed that clean-energy occupations typically deliver higher wages, with staffing demands that require diversified talent sourcing strategies. Meanwhile, a 2021 workforce report on Seattle energy efficient building operations and construction industries found 'a lack of diversity in the workforce, with most workers being white and male." The report also projected continued growth for the sectors, which has resulted in training programs being overwhelmed by resulting student demand.

These trends are compounded by rampant resignations and a heightened desire among candidates for meaningful careers that drive not only career success but social and environmental progress. They highlight the need, the white paper argues, for accelerated degree pathways for adult learners, which are "one of the most effective strategies to bridge the workforce gap in Washington State and beyond."

After all, degree completion, especially in STEM, continues to correlate with increased earnings. Degree completion is also a Washington state goal (70 percent), although nationally, 43 percent of America's 200 million working adults have received no degree, despite having some college experience. Citing Census data, the white paper further breaks down educational attainment, by race and ethnic groups: "In 2020, of the approximately 210 million adults 25 or older, 52 percent who self-identified as Asian had bachelor's degrees, non-Hispanic whites were at 33 percent, Black people were at 20 percent, Hispanics 14 percent, and Native American and other groups less than 8 percent."

Scarcities of time and finances are well-known barriers to college completion, especially for adult learners and underserved populations. However, adult learners develop competencies through workplace experience, including on-the-job training, and other non-credit educational experiences. By validating skills gained outside of the classroom, the A.A.S.-T shortens the associate degree journey to as little as six months.

Citing CAEL's Equity Paradoxes in the PLA Boost, the white paper noted the irony in "Black and lower-income adult students [receiving] strong boosts to credential completion for PLA/CPL credit" despite being "the least likely to receive such credits." To counter this trend, SSC has made the 'recruiting and retaining [of] historically underrepresented populations in STEM fields' a goal of the A.A.S.-T program. SSC offers robust student support, including a personalized approach to recognizing prior learning from military and workplace experiences and training that remove longstanding obstacles to CPL.

Indeed, nearly two-thirds of the A.A.S.-T's credit requirements can be met through CPL. Students who have performed at least 6,000 hours of validated work in an engineering/technology-related field can receive 20 college credits through a portfolio review process. Military service via American Council on Education credits also qualifies as on-the-job work experience.

Although portfolio review is a long-established process for awarding CPL at SSC, the college had to develop new processes to recognize the prior learning that is the source of the program's largest tranche of CPL - up to 36 credits for "industry training and certifications and other nontraditional learning." These educational experiences include joint services transcripts, industry/corporate education, continuing education, and apprenticeship courses outside of the state. To integrate these nontraditional sources of college credit, SSC developed courses that capture such credits under three umbrellas: occupational safety and health (MOET 201), engineering and technology (MOET 201), and operations and management (MOET 203). SSC also built crosswalks that connect these classes to relevant coursework at non-regionally accredited institutions, removing additional hurdles adult learners often face in parlaying prior learning into present credit.

Third-party annual evaluations, required as part of the MOET program's grant support, have praised the A.A.S.-T. The most recent assessment notes, "During year three, the team recruited its first cohort of students; institutionalized processes for intake, assessment, and evaluation; and forged new partnerships to advance the concept of accelerated degrees to create more STEM pathways. This is a major milestone for this grant and marks the movement of PLA from the idea phase (where it resided for many years prior to this grant) to the implementation phase. The successful navigation of the systems and the accreditation and faculty committees at South Seattle College [open] the door to others who want to implement this in the Seattle Colleges District and colleges across the state."

An annual student survey offered similar validation. Eighty-five percent of respondents reported that the orientation and capstone courses are "quite or particularly useful for preparing them to be successful at South Seattle, and one hundred percent said the availability of CPL from work and training was quite or particularly important to their success." In another survey that contrasted student perceptions before and after entering the program, the share of students who were confident that the program would boost their ability to advance in their career increased from 53 percent to 78 percent.

As a Navy veteran and A.A.S.-T student said, "Without the credits for prior learning, my education path could have taken much longer to the point where my GI Bill may not have covered the full cost of my education. With [credit for prior learning] applied and my degree fast-tracked, I was able to finish both degrees with GI Bill funds left over for future education opportunities." The white paper also documents student-level success stories in which civilian workers were able to advance their careers and earn credentials after previous difficulties via the program's nontraditional pathways.

The success of the A.A.S.-T has prompted SSC to advocate for a statewide scaling of its strategies. Noting that colleges traditionally focus engagement on high school students, the white paper calls attention to data showing that more than one-fifth of Washington residents between the ages of 17 and 54 have completed some college, do not have a degree, and are not currently enrolled. Because the A.A.S.-T "provides an equity-based blueprint for validating work experience and training to either earn an associate degree or advance to a B.A.S. degree to unlock career potential for adult learners ... extending this type of degree in additional occupational areas will provide a flexible, equitable, accelerated degree pathway that can serve the needs of working adults.'

Accordingly, SSC has engaged with stakeholders throughout the state, including the BAS Leadership Council (BLC), Washington Council on Engineering & Technical Education (WCERTE), and the Washington Student Achievement Council's (WSAC) CPL Workgroup. This collaboration has prompted several SSC proposals to advance CPL in Washington. They include partnering with CAEL on the development of a CPL toolkit that will function as a "knowledge repository and best practice guide across the state that is user friendly and practical, based on current policy, with templates and examples that build on resources in an existing handbook." The toolkit, which will include rubrics, frameworks, and other guidance, will illustrate the value of CPL to diverse audiences. On a broader level, CAEL has launched a grassroots campaign that offers free CPL resources to encourage usage. It also recently rolled out an upgraded technology solution, Credit Predictor Pro, that centralizes and streamlines the entire CPL process for institutions.

After all, as Veronica Wade, executive dean of workforce instruction at SSC says, "When a program can take an individual and through CPL assessments develop a learning plan that incorporates past experiences and learning with future courses and plans, you have created a successful program."


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