Low-Hanging Fruit: How Boards Can Improve Education Now Through Pedagogy, Portability, and Price

By April 14, 2011 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

America’s educators and policy leaders are searching for educational solutions that will help meet President Obama’s goal of doubling the number of people with a college degree or certificate by 2020, while reducing the cost of higher education to students and society. As the search continues, we are hearing about possible new areas of reform to achieve those goals. But boards of trustees don’t have to wait for such reforms to deliver better pricing and educational service for current students and the new ones with whom the president wants us to succeed.

Developmental education, blended and online learning, and adaptive learning are being touted as high-potential areas for improvement in college-going and persistence rates for previously marginalized learners, such as older, single-parent and employed-adult learners. And higher-education policy makers and board members continue to discuss reducing overall tuition costs, allowing for three-year baccalaureate degrees and other ideas. Such conversations are important and valuable, and they have the potential to yield new, documented, and proven approaches that will ultimately make a significant difference in college success rates.

Boards can make great strides right now, however—even before such new approaches readily become available. They can do that by establishing policies that, first, make recognized learning portable and, second, simplify pricing and reduce costs to students.

Making Recognized Learning Portable

Higher education in the 21st century is increasingly characterized by student mobility and flexibility. More than half of today’s college graduates attend two or more institutions on their journeys to their degrees. So do many students who don’t ever graduate. That means that a significant majority of people who attend college will, along the way, automatically be enrolled in degree programs at a minimum of two different institutions, even if those programs have the same name.

Yet most of our degree programs assume that students will be in the same college for their entire learning careers.

Take the case of Shirley, who responded to a blog post I wrote on this subject several years ago. She attended college in medical-office management and wanted to transfer to another institution. But she had to take certain classes again. “I have had many classmates transfer from one college to the next, pay a truckload of cash, and the end result is that not all of your credits transfer,” she wrote me. “So you have to take the material that YOU ALREADY KNOW all over. For what?” Of herself, she added, “I now have to pick between choosing another B.A. program or waste my money and more importantly my time. I mean, if it’s money they want, why don’t they figure out some other way to scam us out of it? But, time, we cannot afford to waste.”

Look at the different ways this practice negatively affects Shirley and millions of others in the same position. She is considering actually changing her program to accommodate the credit-transfer requirements. She is suffering financially from the redundant costs that arise from taking a course that she has already taken successfully. And she is losing ground in her time to degree. These are all reasons why people leave college and do not return. And they have nothing to do with the individual’s capacity to learn or academic success in other settings.

It is estimated that such practices require many students who want to earn an undergraduate degree to attend, at a minimum, one additional semester. For others, it requires an extra year or more. That approach increases student indebtedness, demands more investment in federal and state financial aid, raises the cost of postsecondary education for everyone, and expands the time it takes students to actually graduate and join the workforce.

On top of the extra time and duplicate costs, the foregone income and tax revenue that such students represent, as well as diminished productivity, is significant as well. Indeed, the lack of credit portability is an incalculable drag on our national goodwill.

To try to improve the situation and smooth the path for transferring students, colleges have entered into articulation agreements among themselves. In a 2009 report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, however, researchers Betheny Gross and Dan Goldhaber found that the “presence of statewide articulation and transfer agreements has not led to a significant increase in the number of community-college students transferring to four year institutions.” If college graduates are frustrated in this process, imagine what happens to students who have not yet attained their degree.

Already some 40 million people are floating around in the higher-education system, with some credit and no credentials. The Gates Foundation has argued that 50 percent of all annual higher-education expenditures, including financial aid, go for services to people who never receive a certificate or a degree. They are a natural resource of enormous value, waiting to be discovered and recognized for the learning they have done and the capacities they exhibit every day. We need their knowledge and skills recognized so they can be more productive in the workforce.

In fact, for the first time in our history, America has high-skilled jobs chasing workers. Having fewer workers with the necessary education and skills than we have available jobs that require those skills turns the assumptions and logic that have driven our education policies and models upside down.

In the old days, colleges, among other things, screened people out. Lack of merit was a disqualifier used to winnow out some so that others would get the scarcer high-skilled jobs. Today, however, colleges need to create merit. We must develop higher levels of capability in many more people so they can take the emerging new jobs. But we can’t do that without the portability of recognized learning, so that learners can receive academic credit for it towards a degree. Higher-education institutions and state systems must use more-aggressive approaches to support students in managing the transfer of credit more fairly, more efficiently, and more accurately.

What specifically can boards of colleges and universities do? First, they should insist on the development of a transparent and streamlined process that allows and encourages their institutions to accept learning that has been done in other colleges and universities as well as recognized in non-collegiate settings. They should require an immediate review of how their institutions currently recognize student learning that has been achieved in the military or in corporate training, accepted by the American Council on Education (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT) and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, or assessed from experience using Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) principles.

Honoring articulation agreements, the ACE CREDIT service’s assessments, and CLEP exams are a step in the right direction. And two good ways to place the learning in the curriculum are to, first, use elective credits currently available and, second, accept other accredited institutions’ general-education programs as equivalent to that of one’s own college or university. Thus, boards should also ask for an analysis of their college’s or university’s transfer policy, including recognizing other institutions’ generaleducation requirements, the use of electives to accept transfer credit towards the degree, and the logic that lies behind prerequisites for study in a major. Finally, boards should analyze the frequency with which such learning is counted as progress towards the degree.

Simplifying Pricing and Reducing Costs to the Student

As boards search beyond capital campaigns, annual giving, and tuition increases for revenue—while controlling costs with tight fiscal management—they should consider new policies for pricing educational services. Clearly, if the cost of higher education for students continues to escalate at the same rate as it has in the past, student access and persistence, as well as institutional viability, will be negatively affected. Coupled with increased recognition of transfer credit, new pricing strategies will stabilize and, in many cases, significantly reduce the cost of attaining a degree.

Most boards could significantly increase the capacity of their institutions to educate more learners, without increasing costs, by effectively granting them “advanced placement” towards the degree they are seeking. Yet our current practices and pricing do the opposite. They slow students down and make them spend more time and money.

Kaplan University, where I serve as a senior administrator, for example, has developed a portfolio-based assessment of prior experiential learning, using the “Principles of Good Practice” developed by CAEL. After two years of experience, we know that the average portfolio is approved for 35 credits, or the equivalent of six quarters of courses. That represents a cost savings to the average learner of more than $10,000 and a time savings of at least two quarters of academic work, according to our analysis. So, they save money through forgone tuition as well as by reducing time to the degree.

Significantly, these learners display more-positive characteristics than their peers as students going forward. They perform better academically, persisting and graduating at rates over 70 percent. Their aspiration and motivation levels are reinforced by the practice of reflecting on the learning they have done, considering its value for equivalent academic credit, assembling it in a portfolio, and applying it as one part of academic and degree planning going forward.

In fact, a recently released CAEL study confirmed these more-localized findings using more than 50,000 learners over seven years. Of the institutions included in CAEL’s study, overall graduation rates were higher for students who engaged in prior-learning-assessment offerings. Fiftysix percent of students who participated in prior-learning activities graduated with a college degree in less than seven years, compared to 21 percent of students who did not pursue prior learning activities. That’s more than double. The findings also confirm that time to degree for students with prior learning is less than those without prior learning, as students with prior learning save between 2.5 and 10.1 months in pursuit of their degrees.

Programs like the one that I’ve described, applied broadly, will increase the efficiency of the institution. When boards refocus policy and practice on what students know, give them advanced placement based on their other assessed learning, and enhance their progress to a degree, their institution can educate more people over the same period of time. In business terms, this is an increase in efficiency and effectiveness. In educational terms, it is a long-overdue learner- and learning-focused practice. From a societal perspective, generating more graduates ready to work for the same amount of overhead with a reduced cost to the student is a good deal all the way around.

Although some would argue that it is not easy to do this kind of advanced placement based on assessment of prior learning, using course equivalents and a portfolio approach—scaled through technology—makes it entirely possible. The hard fact is that many faculty members do not want to let this kind of learning “in” to the degree stream. Why? Because they fear that it is not rigorous enough. Most faculty members assume that acceptable learning only occurs in their classroom, under their supervision, and through traditional means like the lecture hall.

But just because learning hasn’t been supervised doesn’t mean it wasn’t acquired. We’ve come too far in our research and pedagogy to believe that any more. College-level learning can occur in any arena, and it’s time that we educators recognize it to assist students with degree attainment. Students in Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) programs are held to the same high standards as any traditional student. They still have to prove—one way or another—that they meet the same course outcomes that other students have to meet to pass that course. If you focus on the assessment of learning and hold students to the same standards, the quality of learning will speak for itself.

Boards should also ask for pricing options that connect tuition to learning outcomes, not courses taken. In other words, institutions should price the educational package, not the elements within that package. In the current model, there are few incentives to motivate students to graduate quickly or “on time.” Students pay full or part-time tuition for a term’s work and then take a set number of courses during the term. They are paying for “time spent” and learning attempted, not “learning achieved.” Other than increasing parental cost or student debt, nothing encourages the student to move through expeditiously. In fact, given the quality of student housing and other amenities, some institutions actually have students who want to stay because they like living there.

Trustees should consider several other approaches:

• Attach the tuition and fees paid to program and graduation learning outcomes; or

• For those who want to move faster, allow a time-based alternative that saves money when students proceed to the degree more quickly; or,

• Establish a self-paced course setting, where students can continue trying until they succeed or quit.

What all of these approaches have in common is that they put the focus on learning and effectiveness, incentivizing the college to succeed with its learners in a timely way. Each idea also assumes a “package of services” that is covered by tuition and fees and includes usage levels. So learners can pay by time spent, learning achieved, or learning mode—such as a self-paced program. In each case, the price can vary with the package of services that is made available to the learner. And each also allows time to become a variable factor, with achieving learning outcomes the constant.

An education provider named Straighter-Line, for example, offers a package of self-paced courses and support services for a low fixed fee. It also charges students a lower fee if they finish their course more quickly than the traditional term. That combination blends pedagogy, online support services, self-paced curriculum, and pricing that rewards learning efficiency and effectiveness.

Some people might argue that this type of innovation is exclusive to the proprietary sector. But there are several institutions, including the Community College of Vermont, Rio Salado College, the University of Maryland University College, and Western Governors University that are excellent examples of innovation from the nonprofit sector. Other than history and habit, there is no reason why traditional institutions cannot do the same thing. And, with the financial crisis facing higher education, both in terms of prices for students and costs for the institution, looking anew at these and other innovative practices—looking beyond history and habit—is essential.

Unlocking Barriers, Creating Incentives

Many boards of trustees have long ceded such credit and pricing policies to the administration and faculty as “academic related” issues. Today, however, with institutional financial viability and academic efficiency on the agenda, boards must become part of these discussions, providing direction for their institutions.

Unlocking the barriers to transfer and acceptance of credit, linked with pricing strategies that provide incentives to achieve educational goals in a timely manner, will have many positive impacts. They include:

• Reduced expense to students, parents, and governments;

• Reduced time and increased persistence to degree; and

• Greater institutional efficiency, with existing resources serving more students successfully.

Lower-cost paths to the degree, including self-paced curricula with online support linked to clear learning outcomes at the course level, will change the face of higher education. They are all possible because of the extraordinary “new ecology” of learning represented by today’s Web-based innovations, social networking, and information-technology advances. The greatest risk we face is that we will fail to fully harness their collective potential.