Do We Value the Education or the Credential in Higher Ed?

Last week, Forbes contributor and President of Kaplan University Partners, Brandon Busteed, published an article with the title “We Don’t Value Education. We Value the Credential.” At the core of Mr. Busteed’s argument is his premise that colleges and universities only recognize learning that comes in the form of degrees – two-year, four-year, and post-graduate.

Students who complete one year of college — or even two or three years — are not recognized or credentialed for their progress. He further writes that many colleges express the value of lifelong education, yet there isn’t much that formally structures alumni lifelong learning for these institutions.

Mr. Busteed cites the decades-long programs to improve college attainment by setting national and state degree completion goals as well-intended, but they have led to a devaluation of vocational training. He asks if these college completion campaigns have truly encouraged a spirit of learning among Americans or have we created the perception that a degree is the only acceptable form of education?

Mr. Busteed cites a statistic provided by Michael Sandel in his book, The Tyranny of Merit, that the federal government spent $162 billion supporting degree-based college education in 2014-15. The Department of Education spent only $1.1 billion on career and technical education.

“Why shouldn’t colleges and universities offer a broad set of industry-recognized credentials and other industry-aligned training in addition to degrees?” writes Mr. Busteed. He adds that the concept of “prior learning” has been around for a long time, but very few colleges and universities have embraced it.

If “education” was valued, every college and university should embrace and accept prior learning credits for all students. Mr. Busteed writes that many colleges and universities do not consider prior learning credits worthy of recognition, because they represent education that takes place outside of a traditional degree.

I disagree. The American Council on Education (ACE) has been evaluating prior learning for 70 years. In a November 2013 ACE paper titled Credit for Prior Learning, Mikyung Ryu writes that 92 percent of institutions surveyed by ACE accept prior learning credit. The table below is sourced from page 10 of that report and shows how those institutions surveyed applied prior learning credit:

ACE report 2

Applying credit for prior learning credit is complicated. In the table above, it is clear that the most frequently used pathway is to apply prior learning credit to elective courses. That can limit the number of credits recognized.

In many cases, admissions officers are not familiar enough with specific policies to assist prospective students. At American Public University System (APUS), we have recognized and accepted prior learning credit for years. It requires a lot of work to establish and maintain a process to recognize and accept prior learning.

I believe that the elite colleges and universities are the majority of colleges that do not accept prior learning credit. Their reasoning is simple — they do not want to lose the tuition revenue that prior learning credits would replace.

Mr. Busteed includes the often-cited statistic that 36 million adults in the U.S. have some college but no degree, and 3.6 million (10 percent) have at least two years of college credit. He asks why colleges won’t recognize students for their partial completion.

He suggests credentialing students as Level 1 (completed 30 semester hours), Level 2 (completed 60 semester hours), Level 3 (completed 90 semester hours), and Level 4 (completed 120 semester hours). He posits that these additional credentials would provide important signaling value to employers and provide recognition of the education progress of students. I like his idea and believe it would require little effort for America’s colleges and universities to implement.

I agree with the premise of Mr. Busteed’s article. U.S. colleges and universities and employers place too much emphasis on degrees. I like his recommendation that colleges recognize partial completions with transcripts noting the level of credits completed.

I think his points about prior learning credit are wrongfully directed to the entire higher ed sector instead of the elite colleges and universities. However, colleges and universities that accept prior learning credit should do more. My experience is that colleges and universities that educate a large number of working adults are more likely to embrace and recognize prior learning credit.

Given the declining numbers of college students, the market may force many institutions to widen their recognition of prior learning credit. Institutions may do well to heed Mr. Busteed’s last sentence: “Business as usual is not one of them.”

The years of increasing numbers of students enrolling in college and a willingness of students and their families to absorb tuition increases above the CPI rate of inflation are long gone. Those institutions that thrive will be those that recognize education from many sources outside of college.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence