Several American colleges are apparently helping students get degrees by awarding college credit for “life experience.” According to an article by Jon Marcus in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:

Universities and colleges are being pressed to increase graduation rates and speed up the time it takes for students to complete degrees by awarding college credit for their life and work experience. A national campaign that starts December 3 will promote the sometimes-derided practice with a nationwide program to help adults prepare portfolios of their job experience online that will be evaluated by independent faculty for academic credit.

The student profiled in the article, Leah Schedin, apparently used real college credits, as well as her prior life experience, to obtain a bachelor’s degree in marketing from City University of Seattle in a mere 18 months.

Apparently about 100 institutions in 30 states are willing to endorse such a practice. The idea on its face seems valid—one does learn things in jobs, why not get academic credit for them?—but there seems to be no commonly accepted idea what exactly is worthy of academic credit.

Through an agreement with the for-profit American Public University, Wal-Mart employees, for instance, could earn college credit for roughly 70 percent of their job duties.

According to the article:

Schedin found the process “ridiculously hard.’’ She prepared a 250-page portfolio to apply for credits, and ended up receiving the maximum 45 toward the 180 she needed for a degree. Her classmate Mark Ball, who also lost his job when the economy crashed, was awarded 25 credits for his 22 years as a restaurant manager and music producer. Without them, he said, he couldn’t have afforded the four-year bachelor’s degree he’ll finish next semester after only 18 months.

It’s great that these people are saving money, but the granting of “life experience” academic credits does look a little arbitrary, doesn’t it?

Colleges first began offering credits for life to returning World War I veterans, who were often able to skip directly to their sophomore year. College abandoned the practice once they discovered that the students weren’t actually prepared for sophomore-level work.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer