Deep in the recesses of my spam filter, among phishing lures and ads for unregulated “enhancing” pharmaceuticals, vaguely named online universities occasionally promise to transform my valuable personal and professional accomplishments into a convenient and inexpensive college degree. The pitch has been around for decades, quickly migrating from one form of cheap, marginal media—matchbook covers, the back pages of men’s magazines—to another. “Credit for life experience” is well-understood shorthand for “sketchy diploma mill that could get you fired from a real job in twenty years if you’re not careful.”

It may also be a great idea whose time has finally come.

The U.S. economy desperately needs more Americans with college credentials: by 2018, more than 60 percent of U.S. job openings will require some form of post-secondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Unfortunately, our existing system of colleges and universities doesn’t appear up to the challenge. The richest, most well-known schools have little interest in enrolling and graduating more students—prestige in higher education, after all, is measured by how many applicants you turn away. Many public colleges and universities have experienced severe budget cuts since the 2008 recession, resulting in higher prices and fewer course offerings for students. Some (although certainly not all) of the for-profit colleges that have grown rapidly over the last decade used questionable recruitment tactics to lure students into borrowing too much money for low-value degrees. The higher education industry as a whole is caught in an upward price spiral that makes pushing millions of new students through college a dauntingly expensive proposition.

Meanwhile, after years of stagnant wages, and growing debt burdens, followed by a devastating recession, few families have the savings they would need to be able to send a student to school for that ever-more-expensive credential that might enhance his or her earnings power. A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that the 54 percent decline in home equity experienced by low- and middle-income families may have led to reduced college enrollment among the children of these families by as much as 30 percent.

Which is why more people are starting to ask: Is there a way to get students legitimate college credit without the college itself?

Enter “credit for life experience,” or, to use the currently popular phrase, “prior learning assessment.” Legitimate organizations are increasingly offering innovative ways of assessing the skills and knowledge that prospective students, especially working adults, already have between their ears—the human capital they’ve accumulated though past schooling, work experience, or independent study—and building on this preexisting knowledge base with carefully tailored coursework.
One such institution is Western Governors University, a fast-growing nonprofit online school that, as we wrote last year (“The College For-profits Should Fear,” September/October 2011), offers its students “a college degree that is of greater demonstrable value than what its for-profit competitors offer—and [does] so for about a third the price, in half the time.” Another is American Public University, a fully accredited (albeit confusingly named), private for-profit institution that has largely avoided opprobrium by keeping prices relatively low and not loading up its students, who are mostly members of the military, with tons of debt. APU has forged a partnership with Wal-Mart to help the retailing behemoth’s employees earn online degrees. The process will include granting credit for work experience and on-the-job training earned in various Wal-Mart job categories. When the world’s largest private employer gets into the prior learning assessment business, you know the concept has arrived.

In truth, legitimate versions of the prior learning model have existed in certain niches of the higher ed world for a long time. The higher education industry’s primary lobbying group, the American Council for Education, has been certifying military and business courses as credit-worthy for decades. “ACE credit” for military training began in 1945. Courses taken at McDonald’s’ Hamburger University have been transferable to regular colleges via ACE since the 1960s. Excelsior College, created by New York state as Regents College in 1971, allows students to transfer in nearly all of the credits needed for a degree from other colleges, or earn credits by passing Excelsior-developed standardized proficiency exams rather than sit through classes. Thomas Edison State College, founded in the same year on similar principles by the state of New Jersey, counts Arthur Brooks, the economist and president of the American Enterprise Institute, among its alumni. The popular Advanced Placement tests for high school students are just another form of prior learning assessment. So are the College Board’s CLEP exams, which are geared toward adults.

Yet most of these institutions and processes have been relatively marginalized over the years, limited to nontraditional students, high schoolers, and others outside of traditional higher education. That’s because the higher education cost/benefit proposition used to be very different: college was a relatively inexpensive experience limited to a small fraction of the population. If you chose to skip it, you could still get a good job. Spending four years living on a college campus can be a wonderful time; why shorten it unnecessarily or avoid it altogether?

Today’s world is different. The dividing line of economic opportunity increasingly falls between those who have graduated from college and those who have not. Tuition has become terrifyingly expensive, and students and families are rightly becoming afraid of taking on ruinous debt.

All this has created a potentially huge demand for legitimate prior learning programs, and a number of organizations are beginning to vie for that market. The nonprofit Council for Adult Education and Learning (CAEL) is now spearheading a process whereby students can pay to enroll in a six-week course that helps them organize a variety of information and evidence about their prior learning into a portfolio that is then evaluated for credits that can be transferred to scores of public and private colleges. “You have learned many things in your life,” notes CAEL on their Web site. “Why not earn college credit for this learning?” For-profit Kaplan University offers a similar new service at, where the introductory video notes that participating students earn an average of twenty-nine college credits and save $10,000 in tuition. Knext can “save you time and money by turning your past learning and life experience into college credits.” The matchbook has gone mainstream.

In fact, the cutting edge of nontraditional credentialing increasingly can be found outside the realm of college altogether. LearningCounts, Knext, and Excelsior can help you get college credit without attending college. Other people are developing systems of credit that have nothing to do with “college” at all. The Open Badges movement, sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation (creators of the popular Firefox Web browser), is helping build whole online, information-rich credentialing systems for all manner of knowledge, expertise, and experience, much of it acquired in the workplace, local and virtual communities, and other places far from the traditional lecture hall. Start-up companies like Smarterer (not a typo) are building test- and badge-based systems that allow people to catalog, organize, and prove their knowledge in a variety of ways. The recently announced edX initiative, bankrolled by Harvard and MIT, will give students formal recognition of what they’ve learned in free online courses. They won’t be “Harvard credits” but they will be something creditlike, issued by someone closely affiliated with Harvard. After decades of monoculture, new forms of credentials are proliferating in wild and interesting ways.

All of which points toward a world where people have many options beyond their local college for getting the equivalent of college credit. That’s a welcome development and a huge net positive for dynamic labor markets in which people form associations with organizations and other people far outside of their local communities and need credible proof of knowledge and skills. The more the sum of human knowledge and skill is represented in credentials that can be used to access jobs and education, the better off we’ll be.

Excelsior’s philosophy is “What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.” That was true in 1971, but it is far more true today.

[Return to The Future of Success in America]

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Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.