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College credit may be getting easier to get

Everyone is looking for ways to make higher education cheaper, quicker and more effective. One popular idea for making that happen is for colleges and universities to grant credit for prior learning that occurs outside the college classroom — and that’s the direction things seem to be going.

The American Council on Education, comprising 1,800 college presidents, endorsed the idea of alternative credit pathways at its annual meeting in early March, citing a need to raise college completion rates, improve work force readiness of students and address cost issues, said a story by Paul Fain in Inside Higher Ed magazine.

ACE is primarily a lobbying group, without accreditation authority. The group has long issued transcripts of credit recommendations for military service and corporate training programs, however, and is an influential force on the accreditation scene.

The group created a stir last month when it determined that five Massive Open Online Courses from the largest MOOC provider, Coursera, deserve its credit recommendations. The open online courses are taught by professors at leading universities and are available free or at low cost to a worldwide audience of learners. That doesn’t mean that all colleges will begin granting credit for MOOC completion, but ACE’s announcement is seen as a noteworthy step in that direction.

“Colleges’ acceptance of ACE’s credit recommendations is a mixed bag,” the story said. “Some fully recognize the transcripts, particularly open-access institutions or colleges that specialize in adult students. Others grant only partial credit, with some of the issued credits often not counting toward requirements for a major. And many more selective colleges do not accept ACE’s credit recommendations at all.”

A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education said “the council's endorsement alone does not mean students can expect to save money by redeeming their Coursera certificate — evidence that they have passed its courses — for credit toward a traditional degree. But if some colleges follow through, the council's recommendations could go a long way toward straightening the crooked path from free college courses to valuable college credits.”

There is an ironic tinge to the news that college presidents are moving toward giving college credit for courses easily available to anyone after a few online clicks, because of potential that MOOCs might “disrupt” the American higher-education system, the Chronicle story said.

The council doesn’t view ACE credit recommentaions as a threat to conventional colleges, though, according to Fain’s story.

In an earlier story in Inside Higher Ed, Libby A. Nelson wrote about the buildup of political momentum toward competency-based learning, MOOCs and other innovations, all of which were mentioned in a fact sheet released at the time of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

“Obama called on Congress to either require existing accreditors to take value and quality into account when giving colleges their stamp of approval, or to create a new alternative system of accreditation that would bypass the old gatekeepers,” Nelson wrote. “It’s that second possibility — a route to federal financial aid that doesn’t pass through traditional accreditors — that many, particularly those who favor new approaches to credit, found most intriguing.”

It’s too soon to tell what effects will come of granting credit for MOOCs, and whether the trend will soon expand to the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. “The safe bet, however,” according to Fain’s Inside Higher Ed story, at least, “is that credit for prior learning is going to continue expanding.”