Credit for Prior Learning to the Rescue

Credit for Prior Learning

Head Start professional turns on-the-job experience into 30+ college credits

When the Minnesota Head Start Association changed its employment requirements, Sally Everson, 46, of Lakeville, Minn., was faced with a grueling decision: Quit her job as a literacy mentor with Head Start or get a degree.

The change stemmed from the federally mandated Head Start Act of 2007 requiring all Head Start teachers to attain an associate degree in a related field by 2013. Half that number were required to attain a bachelor’s degree. More than 33,000 employees nationwide were impacted by the act, Everson being one of them.

Everson has 25 years of experience in the field and had already earned Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, so it was a natural choice for her to continue in her career, but not an easy one.

“I’m not a prime candidate to take classes and to go school to keep up on everything,” she said. “Attending school every week, having assignments due, working full-time, having a family and going to school seemed too much.” That’s when she turned to Dakota County Technical College.

She had met Jill Behnke, an Early Childhood and Youth Development instructor at DCTC, after serving as a guest speaker for Behnke’s class. She contacted Behnke about her situation and that started the ball rolling.

Behnke put her in touch with Scott Gunderson, the college’s business and management department chair and supervisory management instructor. In no time, Everson was enrolled in DCTC’s Credit for Prior Learning program.

“There are so many people that are in Sally’s situation or something similar and think they have to start over,” said Gunderson. “They don’t have to start at zero when we can look at life experiences and translate it into credits.”

Gunderson and Behnke realized others could benefit from the CPL in the Early Childhood and Youth Development program. “Head Start is requiring a degree while some child care workers and centers just require college credits,” said Behnke. “Depending on what child care workers want to do, sometimes formal education is important.” By leveraging Credit for Prior Learning, DCTC has found a way to help Everson and others like her.

Everson remembers sitting in the first CPL class with Gunderson. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be a good fit or not. I don’t know if I’m going to have enough experience,’” she said. “But things you don’t think will count actually do make a huge difference.”

All experience goes through a Prior Learning Assessment, which is described as “the evaluation and assessment of learning gained outside of a traditional academic environment for college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training.” Experience could mean anything from participating in community service to serving in the military.

“It’s not the quantity of learning, it’s the quality of learning the person has,” Gunderson said. “People don’t necessarily need to have three years of experience if they can show they learned a lot in a shorter period of time.”

The Prior Learning Assessment can be done through a variety of methods:
  • Credit by examination (such as CLEP)
  • Articulation agreements or transcripts from other college or universities
  • Licenses, certificates, and apprenticeships
  • Completion of other evaluated programs (professional, government, or military)
  • Portfolio-assisted assessment

Everson already had well over 30 credits, so the team chose to do some credit by examination, but mostly credit by portfolios and a few general education courses online. For each portfolio, she wrote a 250-word competency statement to compare with the Early Childhood and Youth Development courses. She also provided supporting documentation and evidence that she had completed the learning. “I went through each course description and bullet point and thought, ‘Have I done this before?’ Yes, I have,” she explained.

Portfolios must include four parts:
  1. Identification and definition with credit requested competency statements in each area of knowledge
  2. An essay or narrative on how this prior learning relates to the students’ projected degree program and how it fits into the overall education and career plan
  3. Documentation or evidence that the student has actually acquired the learning they are claiming
  4. A credit request listing exactly how much credit the student is asking in each subject or area

Gunderson reviewed each one of Everson’s portfolios. “I’m not the subject matter expert in the specific field, but I make sure when I give it to Jill that I’m not wasting her time,” he explained. “She had to validate everything and make the decision about how to prove what Sally was saying.”

As an expert her field, Behnke was the next to review the portfolio. “Scott starts the process of developing portfolios to bring to me,” she said. “That’s his expertise. I provide the subject matter expertise.”

Behnke’s task was to verify that Everson reached at least a 75 percent match for the course competencies. She thoroughly reviewed and assessed Everson’s portfolio before awarding credits.

“It’s the student’s responsibility to put together the information that shows me they meet the course goals,” Behnke said.

The subject matter expert then determines the nature of the second assessment. Behnke explained, “In Sally’s case, I conducted an observation, but a write-up may be more appropriate. It just depends on what the student is doing.”

According to Behnke, the assessment process takes into account higher levels of learning. She noted that Everson had to dig deep to show her knowledge and the application of her knowledge.

Everson admitted it was work to examine everything she had done in her life, organize it, and present it in neat, packaged portfolios. At the end of the day, though, it was more economically and academically feasible than a traditional classroom structure.

“Earning up to forty credits through life experience for a sixty-credit degree is amazing,” said Behnke. And at $50 per credit as opposed to $190 per credit, it saves time and money.

“In addition to being efficient on many levels, looking back at all my training and reviewing what I knew had many rewards,” said Everson. “Among them, it gave me a confidence boost to realize just how much I have learned and grown over the years.”

According to Gunderson, CPL can be especially beneficial when someone is in need of work. “If an employer is looking for an employee with a degree, CPL accelerates your opportunity to earn it so you can get the job,” he said. “It minimizes the investment and maximizes use of your time and money.”

DCTC has been offering CPL since 2003 and follows the Council of Adult Experiential Learning (CAEL) guidelines stipulating an adult learner be between 25–64 years old. However, Gunderson has had active military and veteran students younger than 25 because of the knowledge and experience they gain during active duty at home and abroad.

Regardless of age or experience, Gunderson encourages individuals in need of furthering their education to consider CPL. “There are too many people fifty years old and without a degree,“ he said. “They shouldn’t be discouraged and know they have a lot life and work experience that can help them achieve their goal.’”

Behnke echoes Gunderson’s advice. “Once you make that commitment, you just need to find the person here who can be a champion for you and help you get it done,” she said.

As for Everson, she was able to keep her job while actively pursuing her degree to meet Head Start’s requirements. Without CPL, she would not have had the time or money to go to school. “People need to know that Credit for Prior Learning could be a viable solution to their own situation,” she said. “Had I not discovered it, I may have ended up resigning from a job I loved. In the end, CPL and DCTC saved me.”

To learn more about Credit for Prior Learning at DCTC, contact:
  • Scott Gunderson
    Business & Management Chair | Supervisory Management Instructor