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Life Experience for College Credit

Standards of Assessment, Methods of Assessment, Further Considerations

As higher education continues to attract an increasing number of adult students, many colleges and universities are developing programs to meet their distinctive needs. These students, age twenty-five and over, comprise 38 percent of the undergraduate population, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census in 1999, and bring with them rich clusters of college-level knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources. They provide challenges to higher education not seen with traditional-age college students, including financial concerns, time constraints, and a distinct desire not to repeat learning what they have already gained from their professional or life experience. As a result, the practice of awarding college credit for learning from life experience has become a popular effort to attract and retain adult students.

Although the awarding of such credit is a legitimate academic process to some, it is not without controversy. The idea of granting college credit for learning that takes place outside the classroom challenges the very foundation of higher education. Some look upon the practice as a radical doctrine of giving away credit or of granting credit just for living, and it may seem inappropriate for the carefully regulated university setting. If the assumption is made that learning takes place everywhere, and that higher education is a part of a larger system of human learning that includes family, church, school, media, social institutions, and the work place, the rationale behind the practice may become more apparent.

Advocates of the practice find support in the teachings of John Dewey, who asserted that "all genuine education comes about through experience." Such experience is not limited to the classroom; in fact, the academy has no monopoly on learning. If learning takes place, it should not matter how it is accomplished, as long as the outcome is realized. If the outcome is college-level learning, then the awarding of college credit for the experience can be justified.

The granting of college credit for learning outside the classroom is not a new practice. As early as 1942 the American Council on Education (ACE) worked with branches of the military to evaluate service members' learning through military education and training. The resulting Guide to the Evaluation of Educational Experiences in the Armed Services documents secondary and postsecondary credit equivalencies, and has grown from one volume in its first printing in 1946 to three volumes covering all branches of the military and the U.S. Department of Defense in 2000.

Formalized testing programs as a means of assessing prior learning first made their appearance in the mid-1960s. Standardized examinations, designed by various national organizations, are intended to be applicable to large populations and to measure levels of accomplishment in many subjects.

A program to evaluate the in-house training that was sponsored by business and industry was begun in 1974. The Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored Instruction (PONSI) began by evaluating training courses offered by eight major corporations and recommending college credit when the learning experiences were found to be at the college level. In the process, a model-reviewing system was designed, which resulted in the publication of A Guide to Educational Programs in Noncollegiate Organizations. Replaced in 1985 by College Credit Recommendations, the 2000 edition serves nearly 300 organizations across the nation and evaluates more than 5,000 training courses and programs.

At about the same time, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) began a research and development project designed to establish procedures for academic recognition of noncollege learning. Known in 1974 as the Cooperative Assessment of Experiential Learning (CAEL), the project focused on gathering data about prior learning assessment practices throughout the country. As a result, faculty and student handbooks were published for the first time that documented the practice of portfolio assessment. By 1979 ACE, the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA), and the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) endorsed the assessment of noncollege learning with the understanding that it would be conducted according to CAEL standards. Now known as the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, CAEL is an independent organization recognized as a premier authority in the field. CAEL has established and disseminated standards for the awarding of credit for noncollege learning, training faculty evaluators, and implementing research on the outcomes of these efforts. The organization maintains a quality assurance program to monitor and evaluate current assessment programs throughout the nation.

Standards of Assessment

As institutions determine their level of commitment to the practice of granting credit for noncollege learning, a number of standards must be addressed to ensure legitimacy. ACE, PONSI, and CAEL have developed guidelines based upon national practices and research studies. These guidelines are available to any institution for adoption or modification. Colleges and universities can also initiate their own internal processes if they are willing to invest money, time, and resources. In either case, the institution must be aware that credit should only be granted for the learning that accompanies the experience, not for the experience itself. In addition, criteria must be determined for what constitutes college-level learning. Previous research has suggested that college-level learning must exhibit the following characteristics, being (1) demonstrable in some form; (2) conceptual as well as practical; (3) applicable outside the setting in which it was learned; (3) related to an academic field; (4) reasonably current; and (4) traditionally taught at the college level.

Methods of Assessment

For the purpose of determining if college-level learning has taken place in a noncollegiate setting, a prior learning assessment must be conducted. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including the process of standardized examinations; course challenge or departmental examinations; ACE recommendations on military education and training; PONSI recommendations on corporate education and training programs; and individualized programs, including portfolio assessment, oral interviews, and competence demonstrations.

Standardized examinations may include the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), the Defense Activity for Nontraditional Educational Support (DANTES), the Student Occupational Competency Achievement Test (SOCAT), Advanced Placement (AP) examinations, and others. They may cover a variety of subject areas and are available at testing centers across the country. Each individual institution must develop policies and practices for acceptance of learning indicated by examination results.

Course challenge or departmental examinations are designed by the institution, the department, or the faculty member responsible for the course for which the student is seeking credit. Challenge examinations are not standardized and may not be available for all subject areas. Credit granted for challenge examinations is subject to university and/or departmental discretion, regulations, and fees.

Military personnel often complete college-level courses while in the service. These include service school courses, monitored correspondence courses, Department of Defense (DoD) courses, and occupation specialty training. A record of completed training appears on a service member's discharge papers and may be assessed with the aid of the ACE Guide to the Evaluation of Educational Experiences in the Armed Services. No test or examination is necessary to receive credit through this method.

The National Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored Instruction (PONSI) evaluates courses and programs offered by corporations, unions, government agencies, health care organizations, and professional groups and publishes equivalencies in its annual College Credit Recommendations series. Again, no test or examination is necessary to receive credit through this method.

Often learning outside the classroom is accumulated over an extended period or in a number of different situations. In such a case documentation may be difficult to provide. Individualized assessment is often the method of choice in such a situation because it is a more flexible means of allowing the student to explain the learning and give evidence of its validity. Individual assessment is designed at the institutional level and may include portfolio evaluation, oral interview, competence demonstration, or any combination of these methods. Although extensive guidelines are available through such advisory services as CAEL, each college or university must adopt its own set of procedures for assessment.

The portfolio is a document compiled by the learner in support of the request for credit. It typically consists of an essay describing background, goals and prior learning, a description of the learnings for which credit is requested, an explanation of how the learnings were acquired, a body of evidence documenting that the learnings are valid, and a request for specific equivalent credit. Often, institutions require that the learner enroll in a portfolio preparation course to provide structure to the process of negotiating for credit. The instructor is a trained faculty member who assists the learner in preparation of the portfolio, conducts interviews and demonstrations as necessary, and makes recommendations for the awarding of credit. Interaction with other faculty with content expertise is also necessary to ensure concurrence with credit recommendations.

Further Considerations

For institutions that adopt the practice of granting credit for learning from life experience, there are other considerations which must be addressed. Financial commitments, faculty training, fee assessment, accreditation outcomes, transcript notations, and transfer issues are just a few of the university processes that may be affected. Just as adult students have changed the face of the early-twenty-first-century university, so does the very practice of assessing the learning that they bring with them.


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DEWEY, JOHN. 1938. Experience and Education. New York: Collier.

KNAPP, JOAN, and GARDINER, MARIANNE. 1981. "Assessment of Prior Learning: As a Model and in Practice." In New Directions for Experiential Learning: Financing and Implementing Prior Learning Assessment, No. 14, ed. Joan Knapp. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

LAMDIN, LOIS. 1997. Earn College Credit for What You Know, 3rd edition. Chicago: The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

MANDELL, ALAN, and MICHELSON, ELANA. 1990. Portfolio Development and Adult Learning: Purposes and Strategies. Chicago: The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

MCCORMICK, DONALD W. 1993. "College-Level Learning and Prior Experiential Learning Assessment." Adult Learning 4 (3):20–22.

NATIONAL PROGRAM ON NONCOLLEGIATE SPONSORED INSTRUCTION. 2000. College Credit Recommendations: The Directory of the National Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored Instruction. Albany, NY: National Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored Instruction.

U.S. BUREAU OF THE CENSUS. 2001. School Enrollment in the United States: Social and Economic Characteristics of Students, 1999. Current Population Reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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