Engineering an Expansion of the College Pipeline

It is a rare plot of common ground for national leaders across the ideological and political spectrum: Enabling more Americans to gain a college degree is a vital economic and social imperative of our time.

That call by President Obama and others to restore the United States' higher education preeminence spurred the American Council on Education (ACE) and other higher education organizations to create and guide the work of the recent National Commission on Higher Education Attainment.

But it is important to keep in mind that it is nearly impossible to expand the college pipeline by enough to meet our national attainment goals simply by increasing the number of first-time, full-time students who enroll in college straight out of high school.

Only 42 percent of the U.S. population between 25 and 64 years of age hold an associate degree or higher. It is crucial to find more ways to help the millions of adults who lack a degree use non-traditional learning experiences toward a postsecondary degree or credential.

The drive to boost the number of Americans able to gain a college degree is a calling that is deeply embedded in the very DNA of my organization, ACE.

We were created in 1918 as soldiers were returning from World War I in need of jobs in a tough economy. We were then called the Emergency Council on Education because raising the education attainment of those veterans was an economic imperative.

It is only logical today for ACE to play a leading role in investigating whether high-profile higher education start-ups known as massive open online courses, or MOOCs, hold the promise of extending to more students -- particularly adult and minority students -- greater access to high-quality education.

That is why this past fall we announced a wide-ranging research and evaluation effort that will examine the academic potential of MOOCs and attempt to answer questions about whether they can help raise degree completion, deepen college curricula and increase learning productivity.

But it is important to note that our MOOC initiative is a small -- though important -- part of ACE's broader push to expand the area of prior learning assessment in ways suitable both for the diverse needs of that increasingly large pool of non-traditional American college students and our nation's diverse system of colleges and universities.

It is also important to understand that one part of that research initiative, reviewing some specific MOOCs for potential college credit recommendations, involves work that ACE has been successfully undertaking for many years.

While MOOCs arrived on the U.S. higher education scene just a year ago, ACE for decades has been reviewing and evaluating learning that takes place outside traditional degree programs.

Since 1945, ACE has evaluated military training and experiences to determine their eligibility for credit recommendations. In 1974, the ACE College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT®) was formed to extend these reviews to the workplace and to major departments of government. Decisions about this and all transfer credit are up to individual institutions on a case-by-case basis, as they should be, but there is a network of some 2,000 institutions that have agreed to consider ACE credit recommendations.

To date, ACE CREDIT has reviewed nearly a dozen courses offered by three major MOOC platforms -- five Coursera courses, four Udacity MOOCs and one edX course -- and awarded varying amounts and levels of credit recommendations. ACE has completed these credit reviews with the same thorough process and rigorous standards that it has adhered to through the years, and that it applies to some 150 reviews annually. The process for reviewing MOOCs is also the same as that used for face-to-face settings and "traditional" online learning that became commonplace around the country more than a decade ago.

Each course review is led by a team of at least two experienced and trained faculty assessors, and ACE's reviewers are drawn from a variety of institutions and geographic regions. Each faculty assessor's expertise is relevant to the course under review and all must have significant teaching expertise.

The reviewers look at textbooks and other instructional materials, course syllabi, assessment methods, lab and class exercises, instructor qualifications and, for online courses, student authentication and exam proctoring.

The final recommendations are always a consensus of the team, and the recommendations are based on consistent standards that are national in scope and not linked to the standards of any one particular institution. It is up to ACE faculty reviewers to decide how much credit to recommend based on the scope and depth of the course.

Final recommendations are published on ACE's online National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training. And once approved for credit recommendations, courses must be re-reviewed every three years to maintain their status.

MOOCs are an intriguing, innovative new approach holding the promise for engaging students nationwide and around the world, and also hold the potential of helping colleges and universities expand their reach. But MOOCs are just one of a number of exciting new approaches as higher education institutions look to develop more flexible options for students looking to ease their path to degree completion and to gain credentials they can show employers.

The American system of higher education will continue to be extraordinarily diverse, with many institutions pursuing unique missions and possessing singular campus cultures. But there is unanimity in the higher education community about the importance of raising the education attainment of student veterans, minority students and a large population of adult learners, and stemming the unacceptable loss of human potential represented by so many Americans unable to gain a college degree.

Molly Corbett Broad is president of the American Council on Education (ACE), the major coordinating body for higher education in the United States, with more than 1,800 members.