How Can Local Industries and Postsecondary Institutions Prioritize Learning?

December 2016

Today’s students increasingly gain skills through learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom. In order to increase the number of credentialed adults and qualified employees, communities must work to formally recognize students’ knowledge from a combination of experiences: academic courses, job training, work, and military service, to name a few. Acknowledging prior learning with course credit reduces the amount of time and money a student needs to complete a degree and encourages today’s students— who are often financially independent, have worked prior to starting college, and face various responsibilities outside of the classroom—to pursue postsecondary education. Thus, recognizing learning outcomes from a variety of past experiences can increase equity in degree completion and the ability to secure well-paying jobs for underserved students.

Read this chapter for an introduction to effective strategies that award credit for diverse learning experiences. Learn how Earn Up in Jacksonville, Florida is using prior learning assessments to increase degree completion among its military community, and discover new tools and resources to prioritize learning in your community.

Prior Learning Assessments: Does your community want to help students measure their existing skills and knowledge? Communities can use the prior learning assessment (PLA) process to translate students’ existing skills, often gained outside the classroom, into formal education competencies for course credit. PLA encompasses many different tools and methods to assess skills gained through work, military training, open source online classes, volunteer experience, or extracurricular activities. Assessments often take the form of standardized tests, such as the College Level Examination Program and Advanced Placement, which provide students with course credit for mastery of subjects typically taught in the first two years of college.

Credit for Experiential Learning: Does your community want to help students complete their degree faster by awarding course credit for prior learning? Using a learning portfolio allows students to demonstrate subject mastery gained through experiential learning experiences. Portfolios may include a written statement, video of the student performing a task, or other tangible product based on prior knowledge and skills. Students can also include formal documentation of skills and completed courses, such as a Joint Services Transcript (JST) or an academic transcript from another educational institution.

Competency Based Education: Does your community want to award students with degree credit for specific skills and learning outcomes? Competency-based education (CBE) awards students with degree credit based on skills learned, rather than seat time or the number of courses completed. CBE gives students flexible learning options by combining guided and independent study with online and blended courses, dual enrollment, or project-based learning. In addition to easing the student process in degree completion, degrees based on CBE credits inform employers of students’ specific skills and qualifications for available jobs.

Earn Up, Jacksonville, Florida: Using Prior Learning Assessments to Increase Degree Completion for the Military Community

To highlight leading practices for PLA, IHEP spoke with representatives from two of the Earn Up initiative’s partner organizations in Jacksonville, Florida—Tina Wirth from JAXUSA and Brigadier General (ret) Mike Fleming from Jacksonville University. Jacksonville and its surrounding area is home to ve military bases and a large number of veterans. Read this interview to learn how Earn Up has committed to using PLA efforts to ease the process for members of the military community to obtain a certification or degree to pursue a second career.


IHEP: Why was the Earn Up initiative started and how did you develop your goals for degree attainment?

In 2012, the JAXUSA Partnership, which is part of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, started to develop an economic development strategic plan for the region. A focus of that plan was to develop our workforce and address the problem that our region had a lower percentage of degree-holding workers than we needed to be nationally and globally competitive.

This led to the early stages of the Earn Up initiative, which was specifically focused on increasing degree attainment among working-age adults. Today, Earn Up’s main focus has been re ned to increase the number of adults with a two- or four-year degree needed to ll high-skill, high-wage jobs in the region.

IHEP: How did Earn Up identify the military community as a target population for degree attainment?

We speci cally included veterans in our workforce development plan because a large number of military personnel end their service in Jacksonville and stay in the area for their next career. Military personnel possess leadership and teamwork skills, which we know are attractive to employers and are immediately transferable to civilian jobs. Earn Up focuses on translating their military credentials into skills and course credit that are more widely recognizable by higher education institutions and the business community.


IHEP: Who are the main stakeholders involved in the Earn Up initiative?

Earn Up has a steering committee that includes JAXUSA, college and university leaders, K-12 administrators, members of the business community, representatives from civic organizations, and the City of Jacksonville. Through the partnership, we work closely with local industries to identify employer needs and workforce demands in terms of education and skills. This is an ongoing conversation with our top targeted sectors, including advanced manufacturing, nancial services, health and life sciences, logistics, aviation and aerospace, and information technology.

We’ve also bene ted from the support of community leaders, especially Mike [Fleming], who has been very involved in helping Earn Up develop relationships and bring in new stakeholders. Mike brings a good deal of social capital and has acted as a bridge between Earn Up and the military community.

[MIKE FLEMING]: The local higher education institutions are also key partners for Earn Up. In particular, the college and university presidents serve as champions of our work. They have been very supportive and have made it easier for all of the institutions in the area to work together toward implementing PLA and reaching our attainment goals.

IHEP: What role do representatives from the military community serve in the Earn Up partnership?

Bringing in the military community has been key to developing Earn Up’s goals. We receive support from a number of military groups, including the military base education officers, veterans’ service officers (VSOs), and other veterans’ education support organizations. Working with representatives from this community is important for PLA service delivery, Earn Up strategic planning, and sharing best practices at our convenings.

IHEP: How did you get a diverse group of stakeholders to come to the table to address increasing degree attainment and strengthening the workforce?

Our first attempt at a collective impact effort grew out of relationships we started building about four years ago while working on a degree attainment initiative through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Unfortunately, the initial process broke down due to a lack of trust among the higher education institutions. We then had the opportunity a few years later to come together again through the CPA initiative. This time, we recognized that the Chamber of Commerce was in a good position to leverage existing relationships and could act as a neutral party to bring the community back to the table.

Also, we immediately stated that Earn Up would be focused on a collaborative solution, rather than simply telling partners how to run their programs; that was our “secret sauce.” Overall, the reaction from institutions was very positive, as was the reaction from our other partners, including the K-12 representatives and civic leaders.

IHEP: What did you do differently the second time setting up a community partnership that led to your success?

First, having the Chamber of Commerce act as a neutral party to bring stakeholders together to work toward a shared goal was key, because they had a good reputation in the community for being able to work with diverse partners and solve problems. In order to bring in the institutions, it was important for us to emphasize that we were not going to infringe on any individual college’s attainment efforts. Instead, we intentionally framed the partnership as an asset to individual institutions by being part of a business-led effort to raise the attainment rate. Also, we immediately stated that Earn Up would be focused on a collaborative solution, rather than simply telling partners how to run their programs; that was our “secret sauce.” Overall, the reaction from institutions was very positive, as was the reaction from our other partners, including the K-12 representatives and civic leaders.

IHEP: Can you explain the importance of building trust and relationships to sustain Earn Up?

[TINA WIRTH]: During the early stages of forming Earn Up, we were supported with technical assistance from the Community Education Coalition (CEC) out of Columbus, Indiana to better prepare us for the relationship-building process. Working with CEC was really helpful because they taught us that relationship building was going to be a continuous process and a critical component of sustaining the partnership. We learned that it’s not enough to establish relationships at the beginning and end there, because once there’s a change—for example, in leadership or funding—you have to revisit the partnership dynamics. As we move into our second year, we’re working to establish trust and build a relationship at the outset so our newest members will quickly become engaged in our work.

Working with CEC was really helpful because they taught us that relationship building was going to be a continuous process and a critical component of sustaining the partnership.


IHEP: What role do institutions play in the process of implementing PLA?

At the institutional level, it’s up to each college or university to determine how to implement the PLA process. Some schools are further along, while other schools are still learning and developing their methods. Many institutions, such as Jacksonville University, implement PLA with support from in-house VSOs. As another example, Florida State College at Jacksonville, a few years ago started working closely with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) to improve their process and target the right populations. They’ve developed their program and now have a dedicated Accelerated College Manager who facilitates PLA for veteran and civilian students.

IHEP: Can you give an example of how a local higher education institution implements PLA for students with a military background?

[MIKE FLEMING]: At Jacksonville University, we have a person dedicated to PLA in our registrar’s office and a trained staff for evaluating incoming veteran students’ prior transcripts to get them degree credits. Our main tool for PLA is the Joint Services Transcript, which is produced by the military and includes information about students’ certifications, test scores, occupations, and other learning experiences from their time in service. For each student, we also review academic transcripts from other education institutions.

Jacksonville University and all of the other institutions in the area are continuously working to improve our PLA services. I have been leading the Northeast Florida Military Veteran College Network, which includes a committee focused on PLA. The committee includes representatives from each higher education institution in the area and meets quarterly to review the policies and procedures each school uses for assessing military students’ experiences and credentials. After the committee meetings, we report back to Earn Up with recommendations for improving PLA processes, bettering tailoring services to the military population, and standardizing the process across all of the colleges and universities in the area.

IHEP: How has Earn Up been using its website to increase collaboration and further PLA efforts in the community?

When we created a section of the website for the Northeast Florida Military Veteran College Network, focused on supporting the military community through PLA, we started to get a lot more involvement from our stakeholders. The website serves as a place to share best practices and resources with the veteran student population and supporting institutions.

[MIKE FLEMING]: The website is an evolving project, and I’m currently working to add three new sections that will provide more information for institutions and students. The new sections will focus on (1) entrepreneurship, (2) best practices, and (3) additional resources. Although a lot of the work needed to share best practices and create awareness is currently being accomplished through the website, we’d also like to deepen our efforts and hold more in-person convenings.


IHEP: How is Earn Up assessing the effectiveness of PLA programs? What data have you found to be useful?

We’re still in the early stages of figuring out how to best assess effectiveness and outcomes. Each institution provides us with veteran enrollment numbers per semester. We also use data from the Florida College Access Network to track a set of metrics on overall student outcomes in the region, including postsecondary enrollment, retention, and completion. A few challenges that we face with data evaluation include overcoming self-reporting of veteran status and being able to disaggregate the information by specific demographic characteristics.

Once we have more years’ worth of data available, we plan to do a more robust evaluation to identify trends and assess Earn Up’s overall impact. At that point, we will be able to determine the progress we’re making toward our goals for degree attainment and whether we need to refine any aspects of our program.

A few challenges that we face with data evaluation include overcoming self- reporting of veteran status and being able to disaggregate the information by specific demographic characteristics.

IHEP: What advice do you have for other communities looking to implement PLA efforts?

For PLA specifically, it’s been very helpful for us to work with CAEL to get assistance with the process and methods. In order to target a specific student population, it’s important to find a leader who can help connect community organizations with the institutions. For Earn Up, the key to success has been working with Mike. He speaks fluent “military” and brings the passion needed to form relationships and encourage collaboration among stakeholders.

IHEP: What’s next for expanding PLA efforts and the Earn Up initiative?

Our short-term goals are to strengthen PLA service delivery at the institutions, improve data collection, and add more resources to our website. We’re also looking for more funding from partner organizations to establish an Education Opportunity Center where we would provide more counseling and information on college admissions.

IHEP: What are your long-term goals to increase degree attainment in the region?

Long term, we want to create a formal program for matching and referring students to a local college or university. We’re still developing the program, but the vision is to have something more substantial than our current website for connecting with students. We envision having an “education concierge,” who would be an institution-neutral advisor with a strong understanding of local programs and encourage students to advocate for their education needs, especially regarding PLA and transferable experiences. The education concierge model will focus on either case management or engagement with community organizations and social services that work with the military population.

Ultimately, we’re working to build Earn Up to be more than the sum of its parts. Our goal is to focus on what we can do collectively to increase degree attainment and address workforce needs.

We envision having an “education concierge,” who would be an institution-neutral advisor with a strong understanding of local programs and encourage students to advocate for their education needs, especially regarding PLA and transferable experiences.


National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training

This guide from the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service provides descriptions of workforce training courses and examinations and recommendations for translating student mastery into formal college credits. This tool can help organizations recognize adult learners’ knowledge and experience gained outside the classroom that is transferable to their academic credential or degree program.

Prior Learning Credit Predictor

CAEL created this online tool to help adult students create a personalized action plan for further postsecondary education based on the estimated amount of college credits they have already earned.

Joint Services Transcript

Active and veteran military students can use this tool to request a transcript showing their service and training credentials with recommended academic course credit equivalents.

Military Skills Translator

This tool helps adults translate skills gained through military experience into qualifications for civilian jobs and further education.

Additional Resources

Credit for Prior Learning: Charting Institutional Practice for Sustainability [2015: American Council on Education]

This report from the American Council on Education discusses innovative PLA practices that institutions can adopt to improve student outcomes. Areas of focus include improving sustainability of PLA efforts, improving communication with and support of students, and improving faculty involvement. The report provides research on a number of PLA best practices and highlights institutions that have experienced success.

Underserved Students Who Earn Credit Through Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) Have Higher Degree Completion Rates and Shorter Time-to-Degree [2011: Council for Adult Experiential Learning]

This brief highlights key findings on the impact of PLA among underserved students from CAEL’s study Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success. The brief focuses is positive outcomes for Black and Hispanic students, particularly by reducing the time to degree completion and lowering costs.

Random Access: The Latino Student Experience with Prior Learning Assessment [2014: Council for Adult Experiential Learning and Excelencia in Education]

This report produced by CAEL and Excelencia in Education examines Latino students’ experiences with PLA at different higher education institutions across the country. Areas of analysis include levels of participation, methods used by each institution, and strategies to improve PLA efforts targeted toward Latino and first-generation college students.

Promoting College and Career Success: Portfolio Assessment for Student Veterans [2014: Council for Adult Experiential Learning]

This report produced by CAEL presents evidence of the benefits of PLA for veteran students, particularly through the portfolio assessment method. The report highlights overall trends in PLA for veterans and provides vignettes of student success stories.