For 11 years, Carmen Alvarez has worked as a medical interpreter at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. And she’s learned a thing or two on the job.
So much so that she’s been able to earn more than a semester’s worth of college credits without going to class.
Alvarez, 51, has received 18 credits from Metropolitan State University — nearly one-sixth of what she needs to graduate — just by demonstrating what she knows from her experience in the working world. She’s one of hundreds of students using what’s known as “credit for prior learning” to cut the cost and time it takes to earn a college degree on the St. Paul campus.
Now, school officials are trying to make it easier than ever for working adults across Minnesota to do the same. Metro State helped launch the Prior Learning Assessment Network this spring to promote the use of alternative ways of earning credit in the Minnesota State college and university system.
The fact is, adults who return to school often come in with “significant knowledge from practical work experience,” said Marcia Anderson, an academic adviser at Metro State who is interim director of the network.
Today, she said, colleges and universities are increasingly looking for new ways to recognize that expertise.
Many schools long have granted college credit for skills mastered elsewhere, such as military training programs, or for passing certain standardized tests.
But there’s a growing push to give working adults a chance to show what they’ve learned on their own or on the job, through portfolios or demonstration projects, and earn credit — if the instructor decides it’s the equivalent of college coursework. While the cost varies, students typically pay a fraction of the regular tuition rate.
“Students might ask, well, are these credible?” Anderson said. “It’s going to be just as rigorous an assessment process as you would have in class.”
Alvarez, who is originally from Spain, said she was able to draw on her expertise as a medical interpreter to “test out” of five communications courses at Metro State. In each case, she said, her professor gave her a list of questions to study in advance and then conducted a two- to three-hour oral exam. Preparation time: about 30 hours, she said. But she aced the tests.
Her communications professor, Becky Omdahl, said it’s not as simple as it might sound.
“It’s not just a student showing up wanting to write us a check saying I want this many credits,” she said. “It really is an in-depth process.”
Omdahl said she routinely meets with students in advance to make sure they understand what it takes to demonstrate college-level work. But she’s also willing to go to great lengths to help them succeed.
In one case, she said, a student wanted to use a confidential marketing plan that she had developed for her employer to earn credits in lieu of a class. “I went to her business site [and] sat in a locked room with her and her manager,” Omdahl said, and witnessed the presentation. “I remember being there for hours.” In the end, “it was a slam dunk,” she said. She awarded the student eight credits in all, the equivalent of two college courses.
Advocates say it only makes sense for colleges to acknowledge the background students bring to the table.
If “I have training that my company has paid me to do … how is that any different than basically sitting in a classroom?” said Mary Rothchild, leader of the credit for prior learning team at the Minnesota State system.
At the same time, college officials also see it as a way to lure working adults like Jen Epper of St. Peter, Minn., back to school to finish their degrees.
Epper, 44, who dropped out of college as a teenager, spent 22 years in the restaurant industry, working her way up from waitress to marketing manager, before she went to South Central College in North Mankato to earn a two-year degree.
During a class in customer service, her adviser pulled her aside. “Jen, you don’t need to take this class,” the adviser told her. “We’re going to test you out of it.”
Epper eventually tested out of three courses, and earned seven credits, by reading the textbooks and taking the equivalent of a final exam.
Now, she calls herself the “poster child” of credit for prior learning.
“For me it was very easy,” she said. “There were so many answers on those tests that I didn’t need the book at all. It was truly from my experience.”
Studies show that these programs pay off in other ways, said Linda Baer, a former senior vice chancellor of the Minnesota State system who is now an education consultant in St. Paul.
“If people are given some credit for the work they’ve done, they’re more likely to persist and graduate,” she said. “The experience itself gives them more motivation.”
In practice, experts say, few students can expect to dispense with most of their coursework this way — the national average is nine credits per person (out of about 60 required for an associate degree, or 120 for a bachelor’s).
But it’s enough of a boost to make a difference, said Marsha Danielson, a vice president at South Central College, who is working to expand the credit for prior learning program. Students “are so grateful,” she said. “To many adults, the time is more costly than the revenue. They love it because it helped them to get through faster.”
Typically, it’s not for the traditional-age student who enters college right after high school. Yet private schools like Augsburg University in Minneapolis say they, too, offer similar programs for adult students. “For us, it’s always been an option,” said Monica Devers, the dean of professional studies.
One of the problems, advocates admit, is that many people don’t even know it’s an option.
At Minnesota State, officials are hoping to change that. South Central, a two-year college, has created a website to help students figure out if they might qualify for the credits. Eventually, officials say they hope to make something similar available at public colleges statewide.
“We haven’t had enough of a spotlight on this,” said Anderson of Metro State. “We want to make this option much better known when students are thinking about coming to college.”