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College credit for Wal-Mart work: Should doing a job count toward degrees?

Hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees now have an extra reason to consider pursuing a college degree.

Hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees now have an extra reason to consider pursuing a college degree. Through a partnership with the online American Public University (APU), they can qualify for free college credits that are awarded for the knowledge and skills they’ve gained in certain job categories. By 2012, 70 percent of the giant company’s US staff will be in jobs that are eligible for free credits.

The partnership is emblematic of changes in the college landscape. Many adults are going back to school to upgrade their career prospects – a move that could be essential for today’s difficult job market. In addition, President Obama has said that by 2020, the United States should lead the world in the rate of college degrees earned.

It is against this backdrop that demand is growing for more credits for learning accomplished outside the classroom – in the military, the workplace, or even volunteer activities.

Rather than simply requiring traditional “seat time, … everyone is looking [for how to] get more people through higher-ed programs faster and in a more flexible way,” says Richard Kazis, senior vice president of Jobs for the Future, a research and policy organization in Boston.

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But is working in a job, say, as a cashier really worthy of college credit?

If a student can show how the experience translates into knowledge and skills that others might learn in a college class, then yes, higher-education experts say.

“It’s not what you did, but what you know,” says Pamela Tate, president of the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL) in Chicago, which helps colleges assess the educational value of on-the-job and other life experiences.

About 8 in 10 colleges offer some credit for “prior learning” in the military or as demonstrated in exams in a variety of fields, a CAEL survey found. Sixty-six percent review portfolios that students put together to show other types of college-level learning, according to the survey.

Different colleges set different standards for such credits, however, so to what extent Wal-Mart employees will be able to transfer them to other institutions is an open question.

“Giving college credit for working at [a place like] Wal-Mart is not something that’s typically been done,” says Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium in Lincoln, Neb.

It depends on how the Wal-Mart program is implemented, but, Ms. Poley says, “I don’t think there’s going to be a high respect, nor, if you move to another institution, [a high level of] acceptance of credit, for at least some of the [job categories] they’re talking about.”

General resistance to experiential-learning credits was strong in the 1970s but has largely faded, Ms. Tate says. “There are still pockets of faculty who say, ‘If you didn’t learn it here on this campus … I don’t support [giving you credit].’ … But if the Wal-Mart program really is a good one, it could help to spread the practice of [prior learning] assessment throughout the corporate world and help a lot of working people get credentials.”

College students who start off with such credits are more likely to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, according to a recent CAEL study of 48 postsecondary institutions.

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For Brian Gentile, starting college wasn’t a problem. But after taking classes on and off for 20 years, he decided it was time to get his bachelor’s degree in computer and information science.

Through the University of Mary­land University College, which caters to working adults, he earned 15 credits – the equivalent of five classes – for learning he’s accomplished in his IT jobs. They cost one-third of what is charged for regular class credits. Better yet, he says, “it basically saved me a year. … It made me think, ‘OK, I can actually finish this degree finally.’ “

But those 15 credits weren’t just handed over. He had to take a semester-long class to put together a portfolio documenting what he’d mastered. Trained faculty evaluate portfolios before granting credits. “It was a ton of work,” he says.

Mr. Gentile’s credits were for courses such as “Windows Network Infrastructure” – a subject he says was better learned “in real life,” where he ran into snags and people issues that usually don’t happen in class.

As for Wal-Mart’s Lifelong Learning Program, APU, which is based in Charles Town, W.Va., is rigorously evaluating the types of learning involved in the company’s jobs, says Karan Powell, senior vice president and academic dean. From there, it will match up equivalent course credits. Cashiers, for instance, can receive six free credits toward courses such as customer relations.

With some free credits and a 15 percent discount, Wal-Mart employees can save a considerable amount on tuition. Some observers, however, have raised questions about the affordability factor for low-wage workers. Over the next three years, Wal-Mart has promised to contribute $50 million to help employees pursue college courses.

Since the 1970s, private companies have paid the American Council on Education, a Washington higher-education association, to evaluate their training for potential credits. The Wal-Mart announcement in June has prompted more corporate calls to ACE about how to have training evaluated, says Jim Selbe, ACE’s assistant vice president for lifelong learning.

Casey Selix is on assignment today. From time to time The Next Degree will feature higher-education material from other sources.