SEATTLE — Laid off at the start of the recession as the marketing director for a regional homebuilder, Leah Schedin quickly realized she lacked something essential for a new job: a university degree.
Schedin had completed courses here and there at a community college, but never enough for a bachelor's degree. Without one, she found, her 18 years of experience didn't matter.
"These days, you're applying online, and you're filtered out as soon as you get to the question about whether you have a degree," said the 46-year-old, who's married and has a teenage daughter.
So Schedin put her talents to work finding a university where she could get academic credit for her work experience. She found one: City University of Seattle, a private, nonprofit institution that's at the vanguard of a movement catering to the growing numbers of adult learners and military veterans who are changing careers in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. At the end of next semester, she'll head back into the churning job market with a four-year degree in marketing after just 18 months.
Universities and colleges are being pressed to increase graduation rates and speed up the time it takes for students to complete degrees by awarding college credit for their life and work experience. A national campaign that starts next Friday will promote the sometimes-derided practice with a program to help adults prepare online portfolios of their job experience that independent faculty will evaluate for academic credit.
One hundred institutions in 30 states are on board. Top higher-education associations back the coalition, and major foundations are bankrolling it. It hopes to reach tens of thousands of people within five years.
The push coincides with President Barack Obama's goal of boosting the number of college graduates by 5 million before the end of the decade, and it comes as states and higher education institutions are moving away from strict demands for seat time and credit hours.
There's a growing awareness that Obama's goal can't be reached without encouraging older students such as Schedin.
"My goal is to be back in my career," Schedin said as she enjoyed some rare downtime in a corner of the CityU cafeteria. "I wanted to get through fast, and I wanted some credit for those years I've put in."
Only a handful of people take advantage of the opportunity to cash in on work experience: For example, just two dozen out of CityU's 2,500 American students have sought such credits, a ratio that's similar to what other schools report.
"It's just not happening at the pace or scale it should be, given all these people out there with learning that has occurred in other venues," said Pamela Tate, the president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which is behind the new campaign.
One reason is that many faculty members look down their noses at the practice and discourage their institutions and students from participating. "They still believe that 'If you weren't in my class, you couldn't possibly know it,' " Tate said.
The idea of credit for learning from experience also took a hit when Wal-Mart announced in June that it would team with a private, for-profit university to offer employees academic credit for things they did at work.
"People thought employees at Wal-Mart were getting college credit for learning how to use the cash register,'' said Marie Cini, the vice provost at the University of Maryland University College, the online branch of the Maryland state university system. "If you use a really rigorous assessment process, that is not the case.''
Credit for work experience can have its downsides. The credits are difficult to transfer if you change universities, and substituting them for introductory requirements can cause problems for students later in their careers, when they can't keep up with classmates in writing or other basic academic skills.
Experiential learning was first tried after World War I, when returning soldiers who enrolled in college were allowed to skip straight to sophomore year as a reward for their military service. But they proved unprepared for more advanced work, and the practice largely lapsed.
Low U.S. college graduation rates are helping to drive a revival. Fewer than 60 percent of college students earn bachelor's degrees within six years, and the U.S. has fallen from first in the world to 10th in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with associate's degrees or higher.
For a variety of reasons, increasing numbers of the nation's 16 million university and college students are older than traditional high school graduates. Forty percent are 25 and older.
A study of 48 schools by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning found that students who get credit for their experience are more likely to complete degrees.
"All of our institutional frameworks have been created around 18-year-olds coming out of high schools without any experience. They're the empty vessels into which we pour knowledge. But when you're a working adult, you're hardly an empty vessel," said Lee Gorsuch, the president of CityU.
"You learn by doing," Gorsuch added. "We're not anti-intellectual, but can you balance a spreadsheet or can't you?"
Even more established institutions such as the University of Maryland University College and Valdosta State University in Georgia are beginning to accept credits from experience.
"It's coming back now in a big way because there is this national push from the federal government," Maryland's Cini said. "We're looking for new ways to help people realize that, even if they've been out in the work force and have three kids and a busy life, there are ways to get a college degree that won't take 20 years."
Universities aren't doing this solely out of altruism. Adult learners increasingly seek schools that give them credit for experience, according to a survey by the higher-education marketing company Stamats. That means the potential for more tuition and more applicants, which enhances an institution's reputation.
While no one tracks the number of credits awarded in this way, Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a consortium whose members offer academic credit for military experience, reports that 45,892 students earned 805,473 credits last year for their military training and experience. For those military students who are pursuing four-year degrees, that's an average of about 22 semester credits each out of the 120 to 180 credits that usually are needed.
Navy veteran John McGowan was awarded enough credits for his electronics training and other military experience that he got a bachelor's degree in half the usual time from Irvine, Calif.-based Brandman University, even while working full time. "I went from zero college to a bachelor's degree in two years," McGowan said.
Some universities offer institutional or standardized tests, while others that accept work-experience credits require students to take, and pay for, courses in which they put together autobiographical portfolios for faculty review.
"From the outside, it looks easy, but it takes a lot of work," said Anthony Boben, 49, who earned credit from his work experience toward a bachelor's degree in economics at Lehman College in The Bronx, N.Y., after he was laid off from a six-figure accounting job.
"What they're rating is, 'Does this person have the equivalent amount of learning I would expect a student to have when they finish a course with me?' " Cini said.
Schedin found the process "ridiculously hard." She prepared a 250-page portfolio to apply for credits, and ended up receiving the maximum 45 toward the 180 she needed for a degree.
Her classmate Mark Ball, who also lost his job when the economy crashed, was awarded 25 credits for 22 years as a restaurant manager and music producer. He'll finish his four-year bachelor's degree next semester after only 18 months.
"It's like the game of Life," said Ball, 41, sitting in an empty classroom in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. "Except I started life first and went to school second."
(This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education- news outlet that's affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Jon Marcus is a Boston-based writer.)
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