Online options abound for college credits

05/04/2013 11:00 PM

05/04/2013 8:13 PM

Danine Adams has taken a few courses at a four-year university, some at a community college and still more online while working all over the country as an investigator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons — career experience that she’s also been able to transform into academic credit.

A little from here. A little from there. And now Adams, 42, is just a few credits shy of earning a bachelor’s degree.

“I’m the whole ball of wax,” she said cheerfully. “On-campus education, community college, online classes, life experience.”

She’s also a forerunner of a new type of college student, one who doesn’t start and finish at a single brick-and-mortar campus, but picks and chooses credits toward a degree or job from a veritable buffet of education options.

These include dual-enrollment courses — college-level courses offered to students while they’re still in high school — advanced-placement programs, military or corporate training, career and life experience, and classes taught online.

“We are at or approaching a point of significant transformation, where you will be able to snap modules together from a wide array of choices or link them in ways that produce what are sometimes called stackable credentials,” said Molly Corbett Broad, the president of the American Council on Education, the predominant national association of colleges and universities.

All these alternatives to conventional higher education are growing exponentially, thanks to their flexibility and, often, considerably lower cost.

A new federal report shows that 1.3 million high school students took courses for college credit in the 2010-2011 academic year, up 67 percent from the last time the government checked, in 2003.

More than half of all colleges in the U.S. award at least some credit for military and career experience, according to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. The number of transcripts from military and corporate training courses submitted for college credit through an accreditation service provided by the council on education rose 35 percent in the last 10 years, and a consortium of colleges that agree to accept credit for military experience now awards an average of just under 18 credits per year to each of more than 45,000 service members.

More than 6 million people are enrolled in one or more college classes online, the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board report.

“You’re seeing learning becoming much more open,” said Mark Milliron, the chancellor of the Texas branch of Western Governors University, which awards degrees based on “real-world competencies” obtained from work experience and elsewhere.

Other than at a handful of accredited alternative institutions, such as Western Governors University, a private, nonprofit online university based in Salt Lake City, getting a degree this way depends on mainstream schools accepting nontraditional credits toward one, something they’ve been slow to do.

There are also legitimate concerns about quality. Just because the council on education awards academic credits to certain military and corporate courses doesn’t mean that colleges are required to accept them, and there’s no way of tracking whether they do.

Last year, when the Department of Defense asked colleges that enroll service members under its tuition reimbursement plan to accept more nontraditional credits — which would have saved the government money — the colleges balked, saying it was undue interference, and the Pentagon backed down.

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