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CAEL Pathways Blog

Research Shows Retention Gains Through Credit for Prior Learning

Recent analysis from the National Student Clearinghouse reveals a six-year graduation rate of 62.2% (Causey et al., 2022), meaning 37.8%, or more than 5 million students a year, do not complete within the same timeframe given concurrent enrollment numbers (NCES, 2022). Institutions of higher education and their constituents remain focused on retention and completion toward a degree, with increased urgency from rising prices and the value of postsecondary education. As a national leader in this space for generations, the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) recently conducted an analysis of the successful outcomes of UMGC students who completed Sophia courses. Sophia Learning provides subscription-based, self-paced college courses that are recommended by the American Council on Education for transfer credit. UMGC students can transfer Sophia courses into UMGC throughout their time at the university. The data included in the study was restricted to terms that included fall 2018 through spring 2021; in this sample, 1,117 Sophia students were enrolled in their first term at UMGC.

The analysis showed that students who transferred Sophia courses: 

  1. Completed their UMGC first-term courses successfully at a 22% higher rate than students without Sophia courses.
  2. Continued to the second term at a 47% higher rate.
  3. Were enrolled in their fourth term at an 86% higher rate.

 To understand those outcomes better, I've invited two senior leaders at UMGC to join me in a discussion:

  • Christopher Davis, Vice President for Academic Quality
  • Pershail Young, Associate Vice President for Academic Pathways

Nick White: First, please tell me a bit about the history of UMGC so we can understand how this alternative credit model fits in.

Chris Davis: Our history makes us unique in that we started as the extension arm of University of Maryland after World War II. We were given the mission to support veterans attending college utilizing GI Bill benefits. That mission expanded to include active-duty personnel first at the Pentagon, and then in Europe; this is how UMGC started serving military students overseas. From Europe, we expanded to Asia. We're the only university that has provided education to military students in active war zones, including Vietnam and the Middle East. Given our origin, UMGC has always served working adults, whether they're in uniform, were formerly in uniform, or were never in uniform. After the Cold War ended and the military drawdown started happening in Europe and in Asia, UMGC pivoted to online learning. For decades, we had been successful because we had boots on the ground, literally around the world. But as there are fewer boots to educate, we made the pivot to online education.

Nick: And how does your history influence your institutional culture?

Chris: We're focused on anything to get students to completion. Reducing the speed to degree, getting students to graduation and doing that affordably is what we're looking for. I like to put these things under the umbrella of personalization; being able to award credit for what students know, whatever the source of their learning. It doesn't matter how many courses students take at UMGC, it matters how many of them get to graduation.

Pershail: Whatever the right pathway is for any specific student, we offer many possibilities for accepting and transferring credit so they can meet their goals, whether they're new to UMGC, current, or near graduation. We have students for whom cost plays a role and who may need a variety of financial options to assist with earning their degree. Our students, as adult learners, have multiple responsibilities they are trying to balance in their lives. So, giving them all the possible opportunities to earn credit makes sense. ACE credit recommendations are one of the most popular options. To serve working adults, we also do internal evaluations of professional learning and credentials.

Nick: According to PLA Boost (Klein-Collins et al., 2020), only 11% of students benefit from credit for prior learning (CPL). How does UMGC promote CPL and what obstacles do you face?

Chris: We built it into the first course students take. When we teach a unit on degree planning, students learn about all of the alternative credit pathways that they can use at UMGC. While we provide the information on our websites that a student can access at any time, we really want to give visibility to our learners that Sophia courses, or a test, might be an alternative to shorten their pathway to a degree. The students that have been successful at Sophia are successful students. They have the skills to thrive in an online environment and they are among the most likely to succeed at UMGC.

Pershail: By providing information about CPL in the first term course, students take this course to meet a requirement for the undergraduate degree. It helps them get this message early on in their academic career with UMGC. We also have CPL options on our website and in our catalog; that continues to be a place we look to enhance and clarify, to give students more detail to decide what's a good fit for them. Our success coaches promote CPL information to students when they talk to them about different options for earning credit. Behind the scenes, our team evaluates credit for prior learning already completed, and reviews student requests to take additional credit options toward their degree program.

Nick: What challenges do you face in supporting these students?

Pershail: Sometimes students are concerned, nervous, or scared of trying something different. We provide encouragement and advice to students about finding information on credit earning options, how to access references and study guides in preparation, how to document their experience for credit, and how these types of credit will meet degree requirements. We mentor and coach students so they can understand all their options and what they need to do for degree planning.

Nick: What is the future of this work at UMGC?

Chris: The big picture vision the president has, that we share institutionally, is that we want to be the most transfer-friendly institution in the galaxy. We plan to articulate more alternative credit courses into the major, including going beyond ACE recommendations. We brought back our bachelor of science in general studies to better support accepting transfer credit and other forms of CPL. We envision walking a student through their degree plan and what credit for prior learning and transfer credit they can bring in before a student applies to UMGC. We're focused on helping them shorten their time to completion.

We're also communicating more about these great options to our students. We actively work with teams across the institution to make sure this information is accessible and widely shared, like creating a video about CPL to increase awareness. Credit for prior learning is a misnomer, as many of our students earn these credits while enrolled at UMGC.

We constantly look to expand our network of partners including employers and other educational providers. In some cases, this takes the form of three-way partnerships: packaging Sophia courses with our courses to support their employees. Our 75 years of working with the military to educate active-duty service members around the world has equipped us with extensive capacity for these types of partnerships at scale. One of the themes I stress to my team is that we need to continue to build on this foundation to get even better at partnering to support the goals of our students.

Nick White is the chief learning officer for Sophia Learning.

Causey, J., Pevitz, A., Ryu, M., Scheetz, A., & Shapiro, D. (Feb 2022). Completing College: National and State Report on Six Year Completion Rates for Fall 2015 Beginning Cohort (Signature Report 20), Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Klein-Collins, R., Taylor, J., Bishop, C., Bransberger, P., Lane, P., & Leibrandt, S. (Dec 2020). The PLA Boost: Results from a 72-Institution Targeted Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes. Retrieved on 09/06/2022 from https://www.wiche.edu/resources/pla-boost-report-updated-12-2020/

National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Undergraduate Enrollment. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved on 09/06/2022 from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cha.



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