Reflections: Rethinking Learning and College Access

By Peter Smith    //    Volume 30,  Number 2   //    March/April 2022

Millions of Americans are blocked from achieving their economic, social, and civic potential by an education system that fails to capture and recognize their knowledge, skills, and abilities. At the heart of this systemic obstruction of opportunity lies our failure to understand and value personal learning. To get at the heart of this problem, we must debunk the myth that college learning is the only learning beyond high school that matters. It is not. There are several paths to learning and career success in addition to the traditional college route.

The American higher education ladder to opportunity that has been assembled since World War II—higher education leading to improved job opportunities and a better life for millions—is a miracle of American democracy. There is much to be proud of. But there is another side to the story. That same ladder to opportunity for some is also inaccessible to many others. And that lack of access contributes to the widening social and economic disparities and inequalities in our society.

Millions of people simply cannot adapt to the traditional collegiate model and its assumptions—financially, culturally, or physically. In most cases, this is not a function of intelligence or native talent. Life circumstances simply get in the way. Some have a high school diploma and others have some college, but no certificate or degree. As a result, their only option to employ talent and acquire knowledge is through personal and experiential learning including noncollegiate training as they live and work. But when there is no credit given for that learning, it generally does not lead to greater opportunities. Like the kids looking through the window at the candy store, these people are on the outside looking in, so close yet so far from realizing the opportunity they deserve.

Another harsh reality is that college, as it has been structured, has developed a paralyzing grip on our aspirations. On the one hand, it controls our sense of self-identity, self-esteem, and personal focus as well as sense of purpose in life. On the other hand, it also structures and controls our understanding of knowledge, competence, and economic and societal status. Furthermore, our current education, training, and employment processes were not designed and organized to recognize the knowledge, skills, and abilities people have gained through personal learning and convert them into personal, academic, and economic value. They pay attention only to the tip of the learning iceberg—credentials and degrees based on predetermined curricular priorities at colleges—and ignore the rest. That’s why I have previously referred to the knowledge, skills, and abilities gained through personal learning as “hidden credentials.”

The sad fact is that, by separating college learning from personal learning, we have weakened both. And as a result, higher education has become, however unintentionally, a significant contributor to the American income, cultural, and equality gap that has grown so dramatically since the 1960s. It segregates the talent and personal learning that does not include college, treating them as second-class and less important. And it promotes formally gained knowledge, the economic payoff, and resulting status as the primary values that college provides. Given this bias, it is the height of irony that employers say that too many recent college graduates are not ready for work in their fields. Or, as one of the people I interviewed said, “While higher education may give you structure, build discipline, and hold a whole slew of other benefits, the school of life can very well teach you everything you need to know to be successful.”

On a personal level, imagine living in an environment where your essential being, your lived experience, your knowledge, your talent, and your traditions are treated as less important, second class. Such an environment would require that you construct your own sense of self-worth and self-esteem, make your way through high school, and find your first job all without a network of broader societal support and encouragement. That is exactly the task that we leave, de facto, to more than 30 million adults, our fellow citizens, their friends, and their families. And when we do that, we marginalize them, and shortchange our society by compromising the value that they have to contribute.

As Steve Lohr wrote in the New York Times (12/3/20), “As many as 30 million American workers without four-year college degrees have the skills to realistically move into new jobs that pay on average 70 percent more than their current ones….But the research also shows the challenges that workers face: They currently experience less income mobility than those holding a college degree, which is routinely regarded as a measure of skills. That widely shared assumption…is deeply flawed.”

The good news is that America is beginning to think very differently about issues of fairness involving education, race, economic opportunity, and systemic discrimination. In fact, as Lohr further reported, “…hiring should be based on skills rather than degrees, as a matter of fairness and economic efficiency.” That rethinking is leading to a new appreciation and respect for all the learning we do, including learning from culture, faith, life experience, college, and work. As respect for the value and power of personal learning grows, we are expanding on and diversifying our traditional beliefs to acknowledge that success through the traditional college experience is not the only way to identify knowledge, talent, and status.

Despite being from disadvantaged backgrounds, there are students who find their way to success. These students show definitively that almost everyone has the innate capacity to learn and that they do so continually. Having said that, we have to remember that these are stories in which people, previously excluded because of their economic standing, race, lack of post-secondary education, and/or other reasons, had to fight their way through to opportunity. The stories show how they struggled mightily to get their talent and capacity recognized. And they show the value of personal networks that ultimately connect them with opportunity; mentors who advise, challenge, and caution them at critical moments; and collegiate as well as non-collegiate programs that meet their needs in real time. These are all supports that can expedite the journey to opportunity and that college graduates largely enjoy.

As a society, and as educators and employers, we need to respect, recognize, and harness life experience and the knowledge it generates, translating it into opportunity as smoothly and effectively as colleges have done for traditional learners over the years.

This new ecosystem will include college as we know it. But it will also include many other qualified options as well: nontraditional and alternative colleges, new noncollegiate pathways for learning and work that carry formal recognition, informal access to learning resources, and the recognition of personal learning from life experience itself. In the future, people will be able to move from one mode of learning to another, based on their needs and life situation, without penalty. Personal learning and flexible pathways are two keys to a more equitable and just future for all.

Two recent books have raised serious questions about the way colleges work, our use of norms to define quality, and the very notion of merit. In The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America, Carnevale et. al. describes in detail how college degrees are, in and of themselves, discriminatory. The authors’ larger point is that college heavily favors the more well-to-do members of our society branding them with implied worth that, while valuable to them, is incomplete and not always entirely accurate. For millions of other people, the downside to this picture is exclusion and systemic discrimination based on race and income.

Todd Rose attacks the issue from another angle in The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different. He argues that our penchant for averages and norms has homogenized expectations and measurements of success. This inherent value system has resulted in serious sociocultural and economic consequences. Put another way, this homogenization is the enemy of individuality and the differences among people. As a result, it hides the uniqueness and value that individuals and cultures embody and that personal learning represents.

Each book questions, in its own way, our definition and understanding of what constitutes valuable knowledge and how to attain it. They also question the definition of educational and learning quality, including the unquestioned value of college as it currently operates. And the “sameness” which that homogeneity creates, including its treatment of most personal learning, is inherently exclusionary.

Ask yourself these questions.

  • Are the norms of a “dominant culture,” for example, America’s White culture, the only valuable norms?
  • Are people who graduate from college more worthy or better than people who do not?
  • Is there only one way to “do” college in terms of organization, content, costs, timing, values, and goals?
  • Are there other ways to recognize talent, capacity, and knowledge?
  • Is diversity within and across our society a source of strength to be developed or a weakness to be treated and reduced?

America’s learning and work landscape must incorporate personal learning, and the talent and capacity that drives it, as an explicit and inherently valuable component of a person’s knowledge. This expanded definition of knowledge is far more inclusive than simply knowing a great deal about a particular subject, be it accounting, computer technology, nuclear physics, or Hegelian philosophy.

Recognizing and respecting that learning, those hidden credentials, for college and employment value has slowly been increasing. And when college and life experience learning come together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A few years ago, I spoke with a man who had returned to college later in life and had assessed his personal learning for credit. He told me:

I was totally divorced from any knowledge of my personal learning. Had no idea what was in there. But as I got going, I saw my life rolling out in front of me. It was incredible……I was astonished at how much I had forgotten about what I had done and what it had meant to me… I loved the experience and it changed my life…When I first dove into it, I was afraid there was no “there, there”. Boy, was I wrong.

There are two elements to this story. First, since he couldn’t adapt to college as a young man, he thought he had surrendered the opportunity that college offered. Second, as a consequence, he didn’t think he knew anything much. Although the first concern was largely true at the time, the second was totally wrong. And the boost to his self-esteem when he got that validation literally leaps off the page at you.

We are leaving millions of people and a great deal of talent and capacity on the far side of a massive opportunity gap that hurts individuals. Because, on the one hand, personal learning creates the vast majority of what we know and that knowledge has value—economically, socially, civically, and personally. But, on the other hand, when such learning has not been captured as part of your educational or employment records, or recognized as having societal value, your knowledge and your credentials often remain hidden, and your future can be compromised.

But, as bad as it is for individuals, the gap is also bad for society. Contrary to the myth of America as the land of opportunity, if you are born poor and/or you are a person of color, too often your chances for educational success, economic opportunity, and security are far more limited than if you are not. So, closing this gap is also a critical social justice issue. When it is analyzed along economic and racial lines, the systemic disparities and the gross inequalities are crystal clear, and the divisions created by privilege appear. Put more bluntly, if we are going to end systemic discrimination in education, work, and the larger society, we must encourage, respect, and reward talent and knowledge in all of its forms and regardless of how it was gained. And recognizing the importance and the power of personal learning lies at the heart of this conversation.

It is time we closed the gap, recognizing and celebrating a diverse American societal and cultural DNA that includes cultural background, life experience, knowledge, and learning. There is plenty of data to chronicle the gap and make this case. But data is not flesh and blood. It is time we heard from America’s previously excluded personal learners—good people, hard-working people, smart people—as they describe their struggles to achieve opportunity and get value for their hidden credentials. They will describe their lives, their work, and the creation of their knowledge and talent. And they will share the benefits they have accumulated, along with the losses they suffered and the opportunities they were denied along the way.

Peter Smith, EdD, is the Orkand Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices and Higher Education at the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). Smith has worked with adult learners for more than 50 years. He began his career as the founding president of the Community College of Vermont. He later was the founding president at two other higher education institutions: California State University, Monterey Bay, and Open College at Kaplan University.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Stories from the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work (Kendall Hunt, 2021), which tells the stories of people whose access to higher education is limited and how some have prospered despite coming from marginalized backgrounds. In this book, he argues that all learning experiences matter and there needs to be greater access to postsecondary education for everyone and that our society should create a universally accessible postsecondary education ecosystem for lifelong learning and work.