The adage goes: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And that’s what most people would think when they hear that it’s possible to earn thousands of dollars’ worth of college credits in fifteen weeks’ time for about $1,000. But they’d be wrong.
“I was telling my husband that if you figure it at about $400 per credit, then $20,000 worth of college credits for about $1,000, well, you can’t go wrong there,” said Kim Sweatt.
By The Numbers
The Vermont State College’s Assessment of Prior Learning course is the most affordable and fastest option for adult learners to earn significant amounts of college-level credits in the state. Students on average have earned 30 credits through APL at a cost of $1,019 for the fifteen week class. Compared to traditional per credit costs, APL adds up to real money and real time saved by students.
|In-State Cost Per Credit, 2012 – 2013|
|Castleton State College||$372|
|Community College of Vermont||$223|
|Johnson State College||$372|
|Lyndon State College||$372|
|Vermont Technical College||$462|
|University of Vermont||$556|
Learn more about opportunities for assessing your experiences for college credit!
Sitting in her office at Ethan Allen Furniture in Beecher Falls, Sweatt looked about as happy as, well, anyone who saved themselves $19,000 and years’ of time would. The mother of four, wife, Canaan school board member, and assistant product engineer at the furniture makers’ northern Vermont facility had just recently heard that she’d been awarded fifty-one credits through the Assessment of Prior Learning (APL) course she’d taken at CCV’s Newport Academic Center.
When she first thought about returning to college, Sweatt, who’s spent the past twenty-six years working for the furniture company, faced the stark reality that many adults heading into the college classroom face: having to take courses in subject matters they’re already well versed in.
Fortunately for her and the approximately 7,000 others who’ve taken the APL course since the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) began offering it thirty-five years ago, that situation wasn’t a reality. Rather, Sweatt wiped out roughly two years’ worth of full-time, college-level classes in fifteen weeks’ time for the cost of a single three-credit course and a one-time course registration fee at CCV. Of course, it wasn’t a walk in the park, Sweatt said.
“I was a little nervous as to how the committee was going to receive my portfolio, but also relieved that I was done,” Sweatt said. “After fifteen weeks, you’re relieved to be done, and you just hope that you did everything right.”
In a nutshell, students are awarded credit based on a seventy- to eighty-page portfolio they produce in the course. An APL committee of four, faculty experts chosen from colleges around the state reviews the portfolios and makes the final decision whether credit should be awarded for each course. So what goes into a portfolio?
The process starts with students, under the guidance of a trained APL instructor, creating lists of their experiences – try doing that when you’re in your forties and you’ll realize it gets to be a pretty long list pretty quickly. From there, students list what they believe they learned from each of those experiences and then group similar types of knowledge together. They then comb through college catalogs from around the country to find courses that teach those skills or a similar set, and if they find one, they make note of its credit value, course name, and the topics it covers so they can request credit for that material. And that’s just in the first six to seven weeks, because the hard part comes next.
“The hard part is getting it all documented. I was lucky, I had my boss here and the folks in HR who were willing to document the knowledge behind the work I do here, but there were some things I could have asked for credit for but I didn’t”, Sweatt said. “I was really amazed by some of things you can earn three credits for in college. I do crafts all the time, I crochet and make little knick-knack type of things, but to find someone to document that type of thing is something I couldn’t do, so I couldn’t ask for those credits.”
That’s right, for every subject matter a student requests credit for, they need to find someone with experience in the field who knows them and who’s willing to produce a letter verifying that the student has gained knowledge through experience that is equivalent to that which a student would have acquired by taking a college-level class. And then there’s the eight to twelve page personal essay.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Sweatt said of the process. “It really gives you a good sense of satisfaction and gratification that you’ve done so much. I think mine was a little over 80 pages. When the instructor tells you at first that you’re going to write an eight to twelve page report about yourself, you’re like, ‘no way, I can never do that!’ But I probably could have ended up making it longer. It’s surprising, once you dive in you’re amazed at the stuff you remember. But at the same time you wonder if you have enough, and if you can document it.”
According to Gabrielle Dietzel, coordinator of assessment services in the VSC’s Office of External Programs, Sweatt’s reaction to the course isn’t unusual and most students, she said, come away transformed.
“APL is much bigger than money and time, it’s also an amazing affirmation of skills and knowledge,” Dietzel said. “You write a portfolio, and it’s a very unusual document to prepare, and then four faculty members from colleges around the state say ‘you have the equivalent knowledge that students in my classroom have.’ It’s an amazing and life changing and reaffirming event. It’s big.”
Dietzel said the need for assessing prior learning began in earnest in the 1970s when colleges across the country began seeing more and more adult students wanting to enroll in programs. This necessitated the creation of a new system designed to measure, assess, and then accurately award credits to adult students, therefore negating the need for those students to take courses for which they already knew the material.
At that time, the VSC, along with ten other colleges from around the nation, developed what have become the foundational concepts and methods used to assess prior learning, Dietzel said. This initial work also led to the creation of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a national organization dedicated to helping adult learners and the colleges and universities wishing to serve that population. Since then, the core concepts of assessing prior learning haven’t changed much, and the Vermont State Colleges have remained at the forefront of the movement and its program is looked at as a good example to follow.
“The VSC’s program is seen nationally as very together and very successful,” Dietzel said. “We follow the CAEL standards for assessing prior learning and mainly, our program is seen as very tight by other schools. When there’s a publication about prior learning assessment, we’re often in it. They’ll ask me to write a chapter or contribute statistics. So when other schools are looking to start a program, they see CCV mentioned in publications, and they reach out to us. ”
Today, the program belongs to all five of the Vermont State Colleges but is administered through CCV. And Dietzel and her staff and predecessors haven’t rested on their laurels since the ’70s. Over the course of nearly four decades the VSC has phased in three additional ways for students to earn credit for prior learning and also created the Education and Training Evaluation Service (ETES), a program designed to evaluate organizational training for college-level equivalency.
For individuals, Dietzel’s department offers CLEP/DSST testing in nearly forty subjects, a CCV Course Challenge option in which a student works with CCV faculty to demonstrate that they’ve already learned material taught in specific CCV courses, and finally, the newly-minted Focused Portfolio Development course, a one-credit class in which students can earn up to twelve college-level credits with the possibility of an additional four practicum credits by creating a slimmed-down version of the APL portfolio.
“I was coming across students again and again who really didn’t have enough experience to warrant the full APL course, they were only asking for twelve credits, or fifteen credits, or nine credits, so we decided to come up with a program that serves that type of student,” Dietzel said. “The tenets are the same, the student has to be able to articulate what they know, and they have to document what they know, but the whole portfolio is much smaller, maybe twenty to twenty five pages, where the big portfolio is seventy to eighty pages.”
For students such as Sweatt, who have decades of life experience to draw from, the APL course is the best option, Dietzel said, noting that on average APL students are awarded around thirty credits for their work. She said each semester about eighty students enroll in the course and her committees – Dietzel hand-selects committees tailored to the portfolios that are submitted – meet almost weekly during that time to review the previous semester’s submissions.
It’s no easy task for the committees, either. Sitting in a room at CCV Montpelier in March Dietzel and four faculty members, fueled by coffee, fresh fruit, and muffins from a local café, carefully thumbed through stacks upon stacks of documentation from eight candidates. They talked back and forth constantly about the requested credits, debating whether the documentation supported the request or whether the requested credits were in line with college-level learning.
“It sounds like she was managing the office, which is why I came up with credit for an office management practicum,” said committee member Jane Buchan while reviewing one request.
After discussion about whether management implied supervising people in an office environment or just performing the tasks, the committee decided the student could be awarded credits under the designation of “office administration practicum.” And so it went for roughly six hours that day, a constant back-and-forth conversation about what specifically constitutes college-level learning in a given subject and whether the students had articulated their knowledge in that subject. Tedious? To some, maybe, but not to committee members.
“This is a wonderful program, it’s like the External Degree Program,” said Professor Jim Black, committee member and chairman of the Business and Economics Department at Johnson State College. “These are probably the two best programs in the VSC, they really help people to change. I’m just so proud to be a part of that process, and it’s just really amazing to watch.”
For Sweatt, that change will hopefully come in the form of a future career move. She signed up for the APL course in hopes of earning twenty-four credits to use as part of a requirement for the Vermont Technical Center’s Career and Technical Teacher Education Program. Her goal is to teach woodworking and drafting in her local high school, a position that became vacant last year when the current teacher, who also taught Sweatt in high school, retired. Since then she’s been volunteer-teaching five mornings a week so that students there have the opportunity to learn woodworking.
“When I realized that our shop program was possibly going to die, it really made me think about going back to college to become a teacher,” Sweatt said. “I wish I had done it years before so that I could have possibly taken it over, but it didn’t work out that way.”
It didn’t work out that way because life happened, and that didn’t jive with a college schedule, Sweatt said.
“I have kids, I had to work, I have house payments, car payments, it’s not like I could just go to school full-time, it just didn’t work out,” she said. “And nights, well, I didn’t relish the thought of driving to Littleton or Newport at five o’clock and then coming home at nine, I mean, fifteen weeks is one thing, but to do it for three or four years didn’t appeal to me.”
So she did her fifteen weeks of commuting one evening per week over to CCV Newport, put her nose to the grindstone, and came out the other side with more than enough credits to help out with her future academic plans. And for Dietzel, Sweatt’s success is only one example of the thousands who have been helped by her program.
“I know this is an incredibly beneficial program,” she said. “This is solid and forward thinking education. APL is hugely helpful to our adult students and that’s what this is about. This helps people succeed.”