In my former role as a dean at the University of California Los Angeles, I helped thousands of typical American college students gain the knowledge and skills needed to become informed, engaged citizens and progress in their chosen careers.
But as the dean of UCLA Extension, these "typical" students were a diverse group of nontraditional learners searching for ways to earn postsecondary degrees and credentials, often while juggling family responsibilities and jobs that meant frequent stops and re-starts for their postsecondary experience -- very different from the first-time college students attending UCLA straight out of high school but representative of the current face of American higher education.
We strived mightily at UCLA to help nontraditional students achieve their goals, whether it was to enter and complete a bachelor's degree program after many previous attempts to gain a degree or to earn a specialized certificate or credential needed for career advancement. Those efforts are mirrored at many higher education institutions today as two-thirds of all college or university students in the United States now fall into this nontraditional, or what I prefer to call post-traditional, category. When I look at this big picture, I often ask, are we doing all we can to meet the needs of these students?
The sheer size and diversity of our higher education system has long been a pillar of strength, distinguishing U.S. postsecondary education from the rest of the world. But that also means our wide array of institutions -- two-year and four-year, public and private, research and liberal arts -- have operated more as a federation with reasonably strong communication and connections between institutions than as a truly interconnected structure.
It is time to create a more streamlined pathway into and through American higher education, a true system that helps more Americans enter and complete postsecondary degrees, credentials and certificates. It should provide multiple entry points for students at different points in their lives, with numerous on-ramps to enable obstruction-free progress toward a degree or various types of career-enhancing certificates and credentials. An interconnected system will benefit all students through their lifetimes, traditional as well as post-traditional.
It is important to remember that the United States ranks just 14th globally in the proportion of its population with a postsecondary degree and that five years from now more than 60 percent of all U.S. jobs are predicted to require some level of postsecondary education. But it's also important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that different post-traditional learners face a variety of circumstances and have a plethora of postsecondary educational needs.
What's needed is not a demolition of our traditionally diverse higher education system but, rather, an ambitious renovation that knocks down some walls and opens up new doors -- building on assets that already exist.
Here are some ways to open those doors:
- Degree-granting institutions. We know many students transfer among different institutions on their pathway to a degree or credential. Smoother articulations among institutions -- greater credit mobility -- would speed their progression. Anecdotes abound concerning students repeating a course, like English composition, again and again as they transfer from one location and college to another. This is not a good use of time or financial resources, and is a frequent barrier to post-traditional learners achieving their higher education goals. As an academic decision, best made by each institution, faculty will need to be engaged in this process.
- Some forms of credit by examination, like Advanced Placement and CLEP exams, already are very familiar and accepted by many institutions.
All categories of prior learning assessment are particularly appropriate for those post-traditional learners who have some college but no degree and likely have amassed a number of additional formal learning experiences since leaving campus.
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has determined that $772 billion is spent annually in the United States on postsecondary education, but that only 35 percent of that occurs on a college or university campus. The proper and appropriate application of prior learning assessment is a way to capture that significant national investment and also to provide post-traditional students recognition of prior learning, giving them confidence and a head start toward their next degree or certificate while also saving them time and money.
Helping more Americans gain a college degree or other postsecondary credentials is critical to our nation's future well-being, but it's not a goal easily attained. Technological and pedagogical innovations show promise and have spurred healthy conversations, but aren't a cure-all. What is needed is a much more systemic innovation: The construction of new and accessible pathways to create a true post-traditional higher education system.