The “credit” in this case refers to college credits. More and more, Americans recognize the value of a college degree or some sort of advanced secondary-level education. This includes a growing number of career military senior enlisted personnel, concerned that their many years of service alone may not be enough to secure employment—much less pursue a second career in the civilian sector.
Consequently, there seems to be no shortage of qualified students older than the typical brick-and-mortar campus undergraduate—clearly falling into the category of “nontraditional student”—who are more than willing to attend college. Schools attempt to recruit these potential students by offering the most up-to-date education, while making the most efficient use of a student’s time and finances. Let’s face it: A 45-year-old senior chief who may never have set foot in a college classroom may not relish the idea of following retirement with taking algebra (again!) to meet the typical general education math requirement.
Thankfully, many schools have taken to offering “credit for life experience.” This means that qualified college academic advisors are making judgment calls to take a nontraditional student’s professional experiences and convert them to academic credits for the purpose of creating a sort of jump-start to the baccalaureate degree. Converting anything to college credits means that the school accepts the content of whatever life experience is presented as representative of mastery of the content of specific coursework in a college’s course curriculum.
It is not a difficult process to transfer coursework from one college to another, especially in the general education area, as virtually all traditional liberal arts colleges and universities have general education requirements, and these “GenEds” are quite similar from one to another. Credit for life experience creates a much grayer area of judgment, however, on the part of the school’s academic advising staff.
Giving credit for life experience makes perfect sense in obvious situations, such as offering physical education or fitness requirements for servicemembers who survived the rigors of boot camp. Other situations are not so obvious. The American Council on Education offers detailed guidance for conversion of many military training to college credit, yet colleges still differ when it comes to how (or if) they award credits for these and other professional life experiences. This can be helpful, risky, or even detrimental, depending on the student’s situation.
The traditional four-year bachelor’s degree program offers a solid foundation of higher education through a wide range of subjects in general education courses, electives at both the lower and upper levels, and the upper-level coursework in the major. This degree curriculum provides necessary knowledge while developing the ability to think critically and offering numerous opportunities for students to separate themselves from the job market competition. This may sound marvelous, but many adults, especially servicemembers, may not have four years or finances to spare.
Some schools may award as much as 50 to 75 percent of the total credits toward a bachelor’s degree on the strength of life experience. The course requirements remaining for the degree, in this instance, often are those in the student’s chosen major. This degree plan resembles that of a technical degree or specialty certificate. Schools providing such an education want to keep the coursework solely in the field, providing as much hands-on experience as possible without the traditional general education requirements. Getting a student to a degree relatively quickly seems practical, but it can also place a student in a narrow range of expertise and leave the student potentially vulnerable in a highly competitive job market.
The student is left with the challenge of determining what the best compromise is. An increasing number of schools are typically awarding up to 30 credits for life experience toward a traditional bachelor’s degree. This amounts to approximately 25 percent of the total degree coursework—roughly one year of the traditional four-year degree program—and this is slowly becoming an acceptable standard.
Typically, coursework in the major and upper level electives (those usually in fields related to the major) makes up roughly 50 percent of the degree coursework, while the GenEd requirements make up 25 percent, and the free electives make up the rest. The electives the student chooses may help shape the degree program to suit his or her own needs and distinguish the student from the rest of the competition. The area of electives is also where schools have the most leverage to offer credits for life experience, creating a potentially enticing shortcut to the degree.
The question the student needs to consider is how much of that shortcut might be at the expense of what the student really needs to be competitive in the job market, and how truly urgent is it for the student to simply finish the degree as quickly as possible. The simple bottom line is: The shorter the time and path to the degree, the greater the potential risk for the student. When the competition increases, will the student have the resume and portfolio necessary to be competitive?
The field of academia often circulates warnings to beware of schools that award a liberal number of credits for life experience. This can be due to the competition amongst schools clamoring for students, but there’s no denying that too much awarded credit can be at the expense of the quality of education and ultimately the student’s best interests. Prospective students at any age cannot be encouraged enough to research a school before applying for admission, and to pick the right degree program for the right reason. The undergraduate college degree is a significant means to an end, and life experiences should count wherever appropriate to that end. ♦
Bart MacMillan is an education services specialist.
- Issue: 8
- Volume: 8