Increasing Home Equity with Advance Education Loan (Opinion)

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Increasing Home Equity with Advance Education Loan (Opinion)

Too often, equity in education can seem elusive, with efforts like graduation grants appearing to have minimal impact. While senior services programs are capital drivers, COVID, budget shortfalls and staff cuts have strained them. Nonetheless, demographic decline has put many at the center of their institution’s survival plans—but rarely with a commensurate infusion of resources to attract and retain more seniors.

Conceptualized more than 50 years ago, credit for prior learning (CPL or PLA) has proven to be a valuable tool for recruiting, retaining, and graduating adults. It’s a unique win-win that makes business sense for institutions, reduces time and cost for learners and leads to further learning.

That being said, the paradox of CPL equity is that it has the greatest potential to increase persistence and degree completion for those least likely to use it. Nationally, 80 percent of institutions offer a CPL, but only 11 percent of seniors at those institutions have earned a CPL. Blacks and low-income seniors are the most likely to benefit from CPL, but the least likely to earn it. This flaw is not because their CPL applications fail, but because they don’t access the CPL in the first place.

Credit for prior learning — the recognition of college-level learning acquired in personal and professional pursuits — can lead to more mature students and more equitable outcomes. Not, however, as is usually practiced. Making CPL programs work for everyone is not difficult, but it requires new approaches.

CPL overlooks the promise but very rarely provides the means to recognize and thus accelerate the learning of those returning to school with extensive experience but no credit hours.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

After years of limited success increasing CPL uptake, I had the opportunity to rebuild a CPL program at College Unbound (CU), a college serving those least likely to obtain a CPL. In three years, we have tripled the percentage of enrolled students receiving a CPL. By last August, 96 percent of all graduates had earned a CPL.

Although I would like to say that I knew from the beginning how to achieve these results, or even that they were possible, this was far from the case. As a professor, I often failed to convince students to try CPL. They see it as requiring time and money they didn’t have, for an uncertain reward—uncertain because CPL is yet another new challenge for adults trying to adjust to multiple changes in their lives, the way school works, and in their understanding of themselves as learners. Research (including in the magazine A pre-assessment of learning from the inside outthis article and this one as well as this article in Journal of Continuing Education) demonstrates how prejudices based on class and race distort what both schools and students themselves recognize as credit-worthy learning.

I didn’t fully appreciate the inequality in these missed opportunities until I began a longitudinal study tracking the higher education journeys of 25 adult students.

Although more black than white students graduated, they took twice as long to do so. Black students stopped more often to work and care for family members. Despite this additional life experience, they are less likely to earn CPL credit. By the time they graduate, the average age of black graduates is 51, leaving them with 13.5 years less in bachelor’s-level earnings than white graduates. This extended time to a degree serves as an “inequality reproduction mechanism”.

In a much larger study of 1,971 women at the City University of New York, black and Hispanic women took an average of three to four years longer than their white peers to earn a bachelor’s degree.

A recent Gallup-Lumina study found that “Black undergraduates are twice as likely as other undergraduates to have additional responsibilities such as caregivers or full-time workers.”

Higher education committed to equity must recognize and respect the learning from these additional responsibilities, rather than viewing them as distractions.

We’ve been able to do that at CU by starting from our students’ experiences using these four approaches.

1. Designing with, not for, adult learners.

This means going beyond the periodic sampling of student input through surveys or focus groups. At CU, I offered this course in which students researched CPL and proposed a plan that guided the development of the college’s CPL program. Their input helped us navigate the realities of student life and built institution-wide support for CPL.

Interviews with students revealed that most gained significant knowledge as a result of experiences that included working as caregivers and multilingual workers. Using questions refined in these interviews, I designed templates to document and reflect on their learning. These templates, which became available in January 2022, represent over a quarter of the CPL awarded to CU in the first half of 2022.

Designing CPL for the learning adults bring from their lives leads to more equitable outcomes. For example, while many colleges offer CPLs for high scores on the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams for which well-funded high schools prepare their students, less than 1 percent of the 232,622 seniors earned a CPL with AP or IB. Working inductively based on students’ learning experiences helps avoid unconscious biases about what is and isn’t creditable.

2. Borrow from design thinking to achieve big changes in manageable steps while minimizing errors.

We used pilots to prototype, evaluate and iterate before asking stakeholders to approve the final design. Each aspect of the CU program took several iterations. In evaluating the interview-based protocol described in this article, we realized that it was not scalable. However, the interviews allowed us to identify credentials to assess credit and create the templates described above. As a result, we have more than doubled the number of students receiving the CPL in one year.

Small tweaks led to unintended benefits. For example, I assigned this request form because students were reluctant to ask for feedback on their strengths. After managers filled out the form, students reported being invited to serve on committees and offered leadership opportunities, and several received promotions. The assignment not only helped students recognize their own strengths, but also boosted their reputation at work.

3. Requirement.

As of Fall 2019, a graduation requirement is the completion of 10 CPL portfolios demonstrating CU’s Big 10 Leadership and Change Competencies. While most CPL credits earned at CU are not from these required portfolios, they do introduce students to CPL.

It may seem unrealistic to require a CPL. Certainly, many students do not have the experiential learning to meet the course requirements. However, every adult, especially those who have the means to return to college, will have had at least some life learning related to transferable knowledge and skills, sometimes called core learning outcomes, transferable skills, or 21st century skills and articulated in tools such as EdDesign Lab’s Microcredits and AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics. Consider, for example, the creative problem-solving of the single mom who turned her apartment into a school, workplace, and play space for a week due to a COVID shutdown, or the critical thinking required to make informed decisions about wearing a mask.

These core outcomes often appear in general education requirements and program degrees. In the diary New directions for teaching and learningthe researchers argue that colleges can use CPL to engage learners in initial assessment of these outcomes, awarding credit when warranted.

4. And – most difficult of all – checking assumptions.

I was an intellectual snob from a young age despite, or more likely because, growing up in a financially insecure household with parents who didn’t graduate from college. My education served to reinforce my biases. At the time I received my Ph.D., I assumed that, with few exceptions, intelligence was tracked not only by the degree earned, but also by where the degree was earned; that those who did not graduate from college in four years were probably not required to do so; and that working-class and service-sector jobs are for people who lack the intellectual capacity for higher education.

Fortunately, I have spent more than three decades studying with and from the vast reservoirs of intelligence, creativity, and critical awareness of adult students. I would not have been able to conceptualize the changes described here if I had not learned to set aside assumptions, recognize biases, and, most importantly, listen to students tell their stories.

Of course, developing a strong, fair CPL program doesn’t happen overnight. It took three years to introduce the innovations described here. Although I had limited resources, CU’s small size and startup culture gave me flexibility that I didn’t have at other institutions. However, I now realize how much more I could achieve if I understood what was possible.

Michelle Navarre Cleary has focused on the success of adult learners as a faculty member and academic administrator at City Colleges of Chicago, DePaul University and College Unbound. She has published and delivered presentations and workshops for pre-study credit, most recently leading a workshop on and engaging in an ongoing community of practice with institutions in the Yes We Must Coalition.

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