Offering prior learning credits helps increase earning power  - SmartBrief

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Offering prior learning credits helps increase earning power 

Getting college credit for prior learning can help people slash thousands of dollars from tuition and reduce time needed to complete a degree.

5 min read

Career-Technical EducationEducation

Older woman in glasses at classroom desk with book open, looking toward front of classroom for article on prior learning

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My colleagues at Franklin University, which is dedicated to adults, feel it is important to honor the experience students bring to their pursuit of an advanced education. Our primary purpose is to help non-traditional students build on the knowledge and experience they have collected through their careers and military service. We are so dedicated to this that 90% of our students either transfer college credits to our institution or are awarded credit for prior learning to apply toward their college degree. 

headshot of Jonathan McCombs for article on prior learning

Providing similar opportunities throughout the country not only increases the likelihood that students will graduate, but it could solve critical needs to increase individual earning power and solve worker shortages in high-need fields. 

Not every institution of higher education is structured for this to happen in a significant way. Apportioning value to work experience and military service is not without its challenges. But finding new ways to make this happen is vital right now. Learners need flexibility and faster pathways to skilled training and college degrees to facilitate career growth and change. We also need to bring much-needed workers into many industries, such as health care, which continues to experience a dramatic shortage of qualified workers. 

More colleges accept students’ prior learning

Addressing this problem requires creativity, and, thankfully, we are not alone in having alternative pathways and creative models to serve adult learners. From community colleges to the Ivy League, there are examples of offerings that challenge the long-standing notions of a college student coming right out of high school to attend school on-site and full-time. 

Harvard University has had an Advanced Leadership Initiative in place since 2009. Stanford University launched the Distinguished Careers Institute in 2015. Hundreds more universities serve midlife, career-minded adults either through their university programs directly or through extension services and continuing education departments. But we need more of them. And more variation.

Some universities are offering a new take on that coveted college degree. Stackable credentials and microcredentials like those offered at Southern Methodist University let students layer incremental learning to a customized degree or certification. Western Governors University has been a leading program for competency-based education where students move forward as they prove mastery of concepts. They also can start at the beginning of any month rather than waiting for a new semester.

Then there are private training providers that offer career training programs directly aligned with the certification exams that validate a person’s knowledge and skills. Layer in partnerships with employers and workforce boards, and the pipeline makes a distinct connection between training and waiting jobs. The popularity of these programs and other alternative pathways to careers suggests these varied models are working. 

Consider health care’s dramatic shortage of workers, which has not abated since the pandemic. Training programs and academic institutions have employed several new models for training, upskilling and certifying health care workers. Many schools and universities partner with several commercial training providers, such as MedCerts, Coursera and Starr Commonwealth, to offer specialized learning for high-demand careers. 

Prior learning reduces tuition, time

Completing training and passing the associated certification exam is worth something to an individual’s path to a better career. As an example, more than 1,000 nursing programs in this country offer a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The 2021 median pay for a BSN is over $75,000 per year. A medical assistant, on the other hand, earns roughly half that amount. A student at our school who completes an applicable training program through our partner training provider can apply six to 15 credits toward a BSN degree. We make it easy for them to find out exactly how many credits they will earn, because that is an important motivator and a way for students to see pathways to advancement. 

Public-safety training is another terrific model for prior learning credit in a field where workers are critically needed. In this area as well, earning an advanced degree leads to a better job and better pay. EMTs and paramedics can transfer 30 hours of prior learning credit to a bachelor’s degree in public safety management and leadership at our school. That equates to $12,000 in tuition fees they do not have to pay, and it could cut back the time spent in school by one to two years. 

Nurses who have an associate degree from a community college or a nursing school diploma and have passed the NCLEX, which is the nursing license for an RN, can apply for our RN-to-BSN program. On average, they transfer 74 units toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing, saving nearly $22,000 in tuition dollars.

Since 2017, Franklin University has awarded 15,000 credit hours for professional training, certificates, certifications and licenses. This amounts to more than $6 million in tuition savings for students — money they do not have to pay for credit hours. 

As institutions of higher learning continue to demonstrate long-term value to learners, industries and the communities they serve, the key lies in continuous alignment to constituent needs. No two educational journeys are alike. Moreover, in today’s dynamic work environment, lifelong learning is more important than ever. 

Where – and if – a degree fits are individual choices, but making the learning process seamless, stackable, affordable and accessible is imperative.


Jonathan McCombs, Ph.D., is the dean of the College of Health and Public Administration and co-executive director for the Global Center for Healthcare Education at Franklin University. Read more about the way Franklin converts prior learning into college credits.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 



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