(Reuters) - Jeff Gentz, a pilot for United Parcel Service, wanted to get his college diploma if he was going to keep lecturing his teenage daughter about the importance of a university degree.
So Gentz, a 42-year-old father of four in Neenah, Wisconsin, joined a growing number of mid-career students who are seizing new opportunities from universities and employers to receive college credit for their experience outside the classroom.
The Obama administration is pressuring universities to offer more help to these adult students in order to boost graduation rates and to improve the quality of the nation's workforce amid persistently high unemployment. More schools are embracing these "life credits" for competitive reasons, too, since adult students are projected to make up a growing share of undergraduate enrollment in the coming years.
The number of colleges that award credit for life experience has increased 35 percent since 2004 to more than 2,000 schools last year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
And a growing number of employers, such as Verizon and Starbucks, are offering to pay for workers' prior learning assessments in order to make their tuition reimbursement dollars go further.
"This saves students time and money, and it allows employers to save money by not having to pay for courses their workers don't need," says Mark Campbell, vice president of learningcounts.org, a credit-advisory site launched by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) in March.
The idea of getting college credit from prior learning has been around since the 1970s, and it's a staple at many community colleges, state universities and for-profit schools. Still, only half of colleges offer some form of prior-learning assessment, according to CAEL, and many of those are limited to certain programs or difficult to access.
These life credits cover a wide range of work experience, corporate training, military service, volunteer activities and even travel. Many programs require students to compile lengthy portfolios, including essays on what they learned, letters from bosses and co-workers and other supporting documentation that professors then evaluate. Students should do their homework on prior learning because rules and procedures vary widely as do the costs involved. And keep in mind there's no guarantee a school will grant these credits even if students assemble the evidence.
The first step is to contact a specific college to see what type of assessment they provide. For instance, LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York, offers a one-credit, 13-week course on how to build a portfolio that costs $150. It's no additional cost to submit a portfolio for evaluation for students already enrolled. At the University of Wisconsin in Superior, students are charged $350 for a similar, one-credit class and they pay $75 for every three credits that are requested.
CAEL's Learning Counts charges $500 for a six-week, online course and then an additional $250 per portfolio submitted. Each portfolio for a specific subject area can earn one to six credits. So far, 130 students have taken the CAEL course and 75 percent have earned college credit, Campbell says. Students should also explore whether their employer will cover these upfront costs through a tuition-assistance program.
Next, students should determine if a school caps how many prior-learning credits can be used. Some schools limit it to as few as 10 credits while others allow up to 30 or 40 credits from prior experience. Most universities require a minimum number of courses be taken at the school in order to graduate.
Some bigger-name institutions are starting to acknowledge the skills workers bring to campus and grant them another form of credit -- course waivers. Prashanthi Sylada, a human resources manager in College Park, Maryland, earned waivers on three courses as she completed her master's of business administration last year at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. To qualify, she got a letter from her manager attesting to her experience and training, and she wrote an essay summarizing what she had already learned.
Gentz, the UPS pilot, dropped out of the University of North Dakota in 1988. By 2004, it was rare for UPS to hire pilots without a four-year degree, and Gentz worried about his job prospects if he lost his pilot's license due to a medical problem. He went back for his bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin at Superior and earned 42 credits from previous experience. He turned in a 97-page portfolio to support his credit request.
"It was very time-consuming, but it was well worth it," says Gentz, who graduated in 2007. "I wanted my kids to see their old man walk across the stage and get his diploma."
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.
Editing by Lauren Young and Beth Gladstone