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

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.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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