Older, wiser, jobless: US adults drawn by degrees

Jon Marcus reports from Seattle on efforts to coax mature students via credit for career experience

December 2, 2010

Like a lot of Americans, Mark Ball lost his job when the economy nosedived. And like a lot of Americans, he found that it was impossible to get a new job without a university degree.

In spite of a colourful 22-year career opening and managing restaurants and producing music, he said, "without those letters behind your name, you can't get ahead as much as you can with them".

As a married father of two, however, he did not have time to spend four years attending university. So he started looking for a place where he could cash in his work experience for academic credit.

City University of Seattle, like a growing number of US colleges and universities, was willing to do just that. Pressed to increase graduation rates, speed up the time it takes for students to complete degrees and cater for the growing number of adult learners and military veterans changing careers in a churning job market, institutions are taking a fresh look at "life experience".

Combined with credits from a two-year associate's degree he earned in his twenties, Mr Ball will head back out into the job market next spring armed with a four-year degree in marketing and communications after only 18 months.

Not everyone likes the idea of giving academic credit for work, military or volunteer experience, and the practice has so far been relatively limited.

But it is about to get a huge boost from a national campaign to be launched this week, when a coalition involving some of the US' most prestigious higher education associations will unveil an online service to help adults prepare portfolios of their work experience.

One hundred institutions in 30 of the 50 states have agreed to accept credit certified this way, with more signing up.

The coalition hopes to reach tens of thousands of adult learners within five years.

"We've come to the conclusion that it's just not happening at the pace or scale it should be," said Pamela Tate, president and chief executive of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which is behind the new campaign.

One reason is that many academics look down their noses at the practice. "They still believe that if you weren't in their class, you couldn't possibly know it," Ms Tate said.

Experiential learning was first tried in the US after the First World War, when returning soldiers were allowed to skip the first year of university study. But many of them proved unprepared for more advanced work, and the practice largely lapsed.

Low graduation rates a concern

The return of the practice is being driven in part by low US graduation rates. Fewer than 60 per cent of university students earn a bachelor's degree within six years, and the country has fallen from first in the world to 10th in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with a degree.

An increasing number of the nation's 16 million university and college students are older than the traditional high-school graduates, with 40 per cent aged 25 and over. Evidence suggests that students who get credit for prior experience are more likely to complete degrees, and do it more quickly, saving time and money.

"It's coming back now in a big way because there is a national push from the federal government," said Marie Cini, vice-provost and dean of the University of Maryland University College, the online branch of the Maryland public university system.

"We're looking for new ways to help people realise that, even if they've been out in the workforce and have three kids and a busy life, there are ways to get a college degree that won't take 20 years," she said.

Universities do not take credits for work experience entirely for altruistic reasons; it has also become an important recruitment tool.

Some institutions that accept work-experience credits require students to take, and pay for, courses in which they put together portfolios of their life experience for review by faculty. Others offer institutional or standardised tests.

"From the outside, it looks easy, but it takes a lot of work," said Anthony Boben, a 49-year-old who was made redundant from a well-paid accounting job and who earned credit towards an economics degree at Lehman College, City University of New York.

Leah Schedin, 46, a classmate of Mr Ball's at City University of Seattle who lost her job as a marketing executive, agreed.

"I honestly thought that I would walk in the door and bring my résumé and do a few interviews with people," she said. "But it's a ridiculously hard process."

She prepared a 250-page portfolio to apply for credits, and ended up receiving the maximum 45 towards the 180 she needed for a bachelor's degree.

"My goal is to be back in my career," said Ms Schedin. "I wanted to get through fast. And I wanted some credit for those years I've put in."

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