Nov 23 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
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
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 ofa credit-advisory site launched by
the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) in
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
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
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.