So at the very time when a college degree is becoming more and more essential for what feels like a shrinking number of decent jobs, college is getting crazily more expensive and the student loan debt necessary for most people to get that degree is looking more and more frightening. Is there a different way out of that particular trap?

Perhaps, says the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey in the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly, in an article on the growth and ever-increasing respectability of “prior learning programs.” The idea of getting college credit for what you already know has come a long way since the days when it mainly involved shady Close Cover Before Striking U. ads that promised speedy college degrees. As Carey reports:

[There is 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.

Colleges could use some competition these days, and not just from for-profit outfits that make promises they often cannot keep. Americans need a non-financially-ruinous way to prove they are qualified for the jobs they and our economy need.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.