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Right now, California has a unique opportunity to level the playing field when it comes to our public colleges and universities.

For too long, our system of higher education has served a specific population ─ students straight out of high school with their families’ financial support, equipped with skills from college prep courses and a load of Advanced Placement (AP) credits to fast track them toward a degree.

Governor Newsom’s May Budget Revision shows the pandemic’s impact on our postsecondary institutions, but it also expands opportunities and sets goals for low-cost ways less privileged students can get degrees.

A world of learning happens outside traditional college and university classrooms, and now is especially the time for our system of higher education to pay attention. Many of California’s newly unemployed adults have impressive skillsets and knowledge bases that should merit college-level credit.

Acquired through employee training, industry certification programs and military courses, these qualifications constitute real, practical education — yet, for the 6.8 million working-age Californians who lack a college degree, translating this expertise into credits toward a formal credential is difficult if not impossible.

Credit for prior learning is a solution that deserves a closer look and new language in the governor’s revised budget as well as a new bill being considered in the California legislature show policymakers agree.

Unfortunately, most of California’s public higher education institutions lack policies to consistently offer credit for education that happens outside an accredited classroom. Now and in the future, we must connect unemployed and underemployed Californians with the qualifications they need for in-demand jobs — and that starts with fast-tracking new, innovative options for higher education that serve traditionally underserved populations.

While the California Community Colleges, the California State University and the University of California do offer some credit for outside learning, eligibility requirements are inconsistent and there is little evidence these options are widely used — even though data from other states underscore the programs’ benefits.

In one study by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), students who earned 13-24 credits through prior learning shaved 6.6 months off the typical five years it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Especially for those students who already rely on financial aid, decreasing time to degree increases college affordability, accessibility and completion across the board. Students who are not required to pay for and retake courses with content they have already mastered are two and a half times as likely to complete a degree and can ultimately save up to $6,000 on their education.

More degrees completed in less time means more upskilled graduates joining our labor force — and fewer public dollars spent to help enact the change.

A related proposal pending in the state Legislature, Assembly Bill 2494, would also be a key step in the right direction, by formalizing a consistent policy across California’s public higher education segments for awarding course credit to military personnel and veterans. For Californians like my own father — who could not use his own decades-long military career in service of a degree — this could be a game-changer.

Indeed, military veterans often receive rigorous job training that does not qualify for college credit simply because it was offered by the military, not an accredited college. If we award credit for AP classes completed in high school, why would we present our state’s own veterans with a double standard?

Amidst the pandemic-induced recession, credit for prior learning could provide higher education with additional capacity and cost savings that would allow more students to enroll and graduate, even with budget cuts.

But the advantages of a strong and consistent statewide policy are not only financial and logistical. At its heart, this is an issue of access and fairness — and of giving every Californian the chance to succeed. To be truly and equitably student-centered, our leaders in higher education must not only prioritize this approach but also offer models for replication to ensure the program’s spread.

Formally recognizing students’ previous high-level learning means that our state values all pathways to and through higher education — and that California believes in its workers’ skills and success. By embracing inclusivity, our postsecondary system can help rebuild our state’s economy and allow more families and communities to thrive.

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Su Jin Gatlin Jez, PhD is executive director of California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, a higher education and workforce policy research organization. She is also Associate Professor of Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Sacramento and served as the Director of the CSU Student Success Network and Academic Advisor for the California Executive Fellows Program.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. As an independent, non-partisan organization, EdSource does not take a position on legislation or policy. We welcome guest commentaries that reflect the diversity of California. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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