Many working adults are highly motivated to return to college.
For job seekers a college education can mean the difference between getting hired or not. For those already employed a degree can lead to raises or promotions.
The decision to add college classes to an already full schedule of family and work responsibilities is not an easy one, however. That’s why many institutions, including Baptist colleges and universities, now offer more flexible options geared especially toward nontraditional adult learners.
Credit by examination is perhaps the most familiar way of earning college credit for prior knowledge. Most people are familiar with the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), developed by the College Board to test mastery of college-level material in 33 subjects including history, literature and math.
In recent years other exams also have become widely accepted such as the Excelsior College Examination Program, offering 63 exams, and DSST Subject Standardized Tests aimed at students with military experience and offering 38 exams.
Education Portal, an online provider of study materials for credit exams, advises students who are considering credit by examination to first make sure their college accepts the specific exam and subject and to confirm scoring requirements for credit. Once that information is verified students can prepare for the exam using a variety of online and print materials. Students who earn the required scores on these exams can earn college credit at a fraction of the cost of college tuition for the same courses.
Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is another strategy increasingly used to help adult learners reach their higher education goals. To earn PLA credit, qualified students document experiential knowledge or occupational training equivalent to a college-level experience through an extensive learning portfolio. Upon approval of the portfolio, students can earn up to 30 semester hours for their prior learning.
Kathy Chen, director of distance learning at Judson College in Marion, Ala. said the goal of PLA is to help students move forward rather than dwell on learning materials they have already mastered.
“Awarding prior learning credit speeds up the students’ progress in gaining their college degree, shows our acknowledgement of the skills and knowledge they have gained through their life experiences and recognizes their prior learning achievements,” Chen said.
According to a study of PLA by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, adult students with PLA credit are more likely to persist in their studies and complete degrees faster than adult learners without PLA credit.
The benefit of alternative credit paths is that adult learners with relevant experience earn college credit for that knowledge, said Danny Chancey, director of adult and professional studies at the University of Mobile (UMobile).
For example nursing students in the RN-to-BSN program at UMobile can take a two-hour validation course that awards up to 34 semester credit hours in their nursing curriculum. Those credit hours, roughly equivalent to one year of full-time study, give students a tremendous head start on their path to a four-year degree, Chancey said.
“Earning credits for prior life experience is an opportunity for adult students to save time and money in addition to building confidence about returning to school,” he said.
Flexibility is another important word when it comes to the way colleges and universities are reaching out to adult learners. For example Judson has a unique rolling admissions policy for distance learning students, which means students can begin their studies immediately upon acceptance into the program. The flexible calendar and individualized instruction from professors allow students to progress at their own pace, according to Chen.
“Because they are not constrained by the cohort model at all times they are allowed to concentrate on the areas in which they need further study or … move on quickly to new learning materials and gain new skills. This establishes momentum in a course and in the end often leads to a faster path to graduation,” Chen said.
Online classes are another popular option with nontraditional students. The benefit of online programs is that students are not bound to on-campus classes and schedules, Chancey said. Once again, the key word is flexibility.
“Flexibility is an important issue for adults who are starting or completing a college degree, particularly if they are juggling work and family responsibilities,” he said.
For example UMobile now offers a fully online bachelor’s degree in Marketplace Ministry, a program geared toward new or returning college students interested in careers in church ministry, chaplaincy or faith-based nonprofit work. The flexible schedule allows students to integrate schoolwork into the routine of their lives.
“We’ve had students tell us they are submitting projects online at 2 a.m. because that worked for them and professors answering questions online at 3 a.m. We even had a student who took an exam for an online course while he was on a vacation cruise,” Chancey said.
Online classes are not for every student, however. Many adults returning to school after being out of the classroom for several years need to feel more connected to the campus environment.
For that reason programs like Samford University’s Evening Studies program are popular with adult learners. Evening College provides working adults the flexibility and access they need while also building a sense of community between instructors and other students, said Chris McCaghren, assistant to the president for external programs at Samford in Birmingham.
“We pride ourselves on building a community of excellence that prepares our students for advancement in their professional careers and personal lives, all within a supportive and encouraging environment,” McCaghren said.
Chancey said opportunities for adult learners are all about recognizing that life is a valuable teacher and rewarding that knowledge.
“Many people forget that raising a family and working a full-time job are filled with opportunities to develop the same skills and gain vast amounts of knowledge that traditional-aged college students gain through their collegiate experiences,” Chancey said.
“Adults spend the majority of their time solving problems on the job and at home which develops analytic skills and collection of knowledge that can be translated into earned college credit.”