Sometimes in higher education common sense and doing the right thing for students supersede competition, policies, and politics (SARA may quickly come to mind). An example, the newly-minted Consortium for the Assessment of College Equivalency (CACE), formed officially in 2015, demonstrates how those sentiments provided the impetus for six adult-focused colleges and universities to pool together their time, talent and resources. These colleges joined together to create a collaborative effort to facilitate the awarding of academic credit for workplace training and industry credentials among and between their institutions.
It started with an idea and two visionary administrators, one from Thomas Edison State University and the other, SUNY Empire State College, both well-established pioneers in the prior learning assessment (PLA) field. They invited colleagues from four sister institutions – Granite State College, Charter Oak State College, the Community College of Vermont, and Excelsior College – to join in their effort. Each an innovator in the recognition of college-level learning from non-collegiate settings, the six founding members of CACE developed – over the course of two years – an agreement to increase the availability of credit to their students and establish standards for the review and recommendation of credit for workplace training and industry credentials.
Differing from an individual student portfolio assessment for prior learning, the work of the Consortium focuses on the academic credit evaluation or review of structured training programs offered by public or private providers (corporation, municipalities, etc.) and of established industry credentialing or licensure programs (IT, Radiologic Technologist, etc.). Such evaluations result in credit awards accessible to any student/employee who successful completes the course, exam, or program.
Simply put, CACE allows each institution to share with its competitors what is often regarded as proprietary information–academic credit awards and official reports- as a means to better serve students. Members of CACE refer to this ability to offer credit for employer training and industry certification exams through an internal evaluation process as the “secret sauce.” It’s one of the best ways CACE institutions can serve working adult students (and employers), and this benefit may likely have helped to land some CACE members on the recent Forbes Ten Great Colleges for Adults Returning to School list.
When the founding members first assembled and gingerly shared these “secret” policies and procedures with one another, a not-so-surprising thing happened: they found they were all approaching the academic evaluation of external learning in much the same way. Still, that fact alone did not make collaboration an easy process; lively debates about semantics often stole entire afternoons. Ultimately, six institutions came to agreement on a common set of standards and a process by which ostensibly to share student recruitment and enrollment access from hard-won corporate partnerships…culminating in the procurement of signatures from six different provosts and presidents.
Yet, the need to work together with like-missioned colleagues was apparent. With a fast-growing interest in the now forty-plus year old practice of recognizing learning that takes place outside of the classroom, both employers and students have become educated and savvy about partnering with and enrolling in institutions offering academic credit for their workplace training and other forms of prior learning. But to award credit for credentials that have not already been evaluated by the American Council on Education (ACE) or the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS, formerly PONSI) can be a resource-laden process for institutions; hence, the idea of sharing academic evaluation reports was born.
That is not to suggest that resources were the primary driver behind the decision to collaborate. Enormous benefits – for student, employer, and institution alike – are inherent in the work of the Consortium:
- Eliminates Transcript Barriers and Facilitates Transfer: CACE reduces the need for a student to enroll in and obtain a transcript from one institution in order to transfer workplace training credit to another participating institution. The six institutions have agreed to accept each other’s credit assignment directly – although each institution reserves the right to either deny and/or process the acceptance of those credits according to their own internal processes. At Excelsior College, for example, any credit recommendations for workplace training and industry certification that come from CACE must pass through the same faculty voting process as those resulting from an internal review. Once accepted, the courses and programs are loaded into the student information system so students can benefit from the credit awards by supplying the required verification from the partnering employer, rather than an official transcript from the originating institution.
- Increases Employee Motivation and Access. Employers wishing to extend the low-cost, high-value benefit of academic credit for their training programs will be able to offer their employees access to potentially all of the member institutions of CACE, not only the one institution conducting the original evaluation. This practice results in motivation for their employees to further their education, saving them significant tuition and time to completion by avoiding costly duplication of learning, and allows them to select the institution that provides the best fit for their interests and needs. In the near future, CACE members also plan to conduct joint evaluations with representation from two or more institutions’ faculty to facilitate important employer partnerships.
- Offers Guidance to Other Institutions: Institutions new to the credit for prior learning arena can access – via creative commons licensing – the set of standards developed by CACE as they look to develop their own policies and procedures for conducting academic evaluations of external learning experiences for credit at their own institutions. Just as institutions look to the time-tested PLA standards issued by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) when developing a portfolio assessment process, these open standards will save them time. As CACE expands, it is likely that institutions without the infrastructure or desire to conduct their own evaluations will be able to join the consortium and gain access to the members’ evaluation reports and credit findings.
- Lends Credibility to External Learning through a Standard Approach. The consortium lends credibility and further validity to the sound practice of extending academic credit for alternative, structured learning experiences. Building on the foundation set by CAEL, ACE, and NCCRS, the Consortium helps to dispel the belief that institutions are simply giving away credit for life and work experience. A standardized approach helps to reduce variations in the amount of credit awarded for similar training programs and lends transparency to the process of determining credit for alternative learning. In addition, the documentation CACE’s work produces can also inform an institution’s traditional credit offerings in light of new requirements from accrediting agencies calling for evidence supporting the application of credit hour policies (as an example, see MSCHE (2016), pp.11-14).
- Improves Internal Policies and Practices. Last, membership in a consortium such as CACE has provided the opportunity for member institutions to review their own policies and procedures in comparison to the established standards, assess where they fall short, and introduce best practice. For example, two institutions recognized the need to implement a more formal appeals process for providers to challenge the credit findings and resubmit new or updated information when appropriate. The result of Consortium membership has been improved processes at each member institution.
The Consortium members recognize the significance of what has been accomplished and share a vision of serving as a regional, national, or even global model for other institutions with the potential to reach major employers and, ultimately, to better serve adult students. Within the next six months to one year, CACE has crafted a hefty to-do list for itself: create by-laws, agree on best practices, develop criteria for new membership, continue the conference circuit, seek grant funding, establish a web presence, and create a way to easily share information, among others.
The group currently exists on the beneficence of each institution and relies on voluntary participation from the respective staff or faculty overseeing the academic evaluation process. Each institution sets its own fees for evaluations and covers its own administrative costs. Consortium costs have been limited to travel expenses and donated meeting space (and sometimes lunch!) at a given member institution. Moving forward, there is a pressing need for a designated staff member to coordinate efforts of the Consortium, create and maintain a website and database for sharing evaluation reports, vet new members, and ensure longevity of this worthy effort.
For more information:
To receive a copy of the CACE Standards for the Assessment of Non-Collegiate Instruction or to inquire about future membership opportunities, please send an email to CACEinquiry@gmail.com. In addition, the CACE concept and resulting standards will be accessible soon on the Presidents’ Forum website.
Founding individuals and current staff involved in CACE include:
Linda Wilder, Charter Oak College; Elizabeth Gauffreau and Leslie Paul, Granite State College; Nan Travers and Patricia Pillsworth, SUNY Empire State College, Marc Singer and Jeanine Nagrod, Thomas Edison State University; Gabrielle Dietzel and Melissa DeBlois, Vermont State Colleges; Tina Goodyear and Tanya Scime, Excelsior College.
More information about CACE founding member institutions:
Chief Operating Officer
The Presidents’ Forum at Excelsior College
Former Executive Director, Center for Assessment of Post-traditional Instruction, Training and Learning, Excelsior College