By Julie Johnson and Wendy Sedlak

Today’s students learn skills at work, in life, and many other ways outside of colleges and universities. But too often, skills and knowledge learned outside of traditional classrooms aren’t counted towards a credential or degree or recognized in the job market.

In 2019, Lumina Foundation aimed to change that with All Learning Counts, an initiative to forge pathways to credit and credentials by recognizing “non-institutional learning.” The initiative launched with nine projects led by state college and university systems, institutions, associations, community-based organizations, and others.

In two-plus years since, these projects began creating paths and policies to support learning wherever it happens. These gains were made during the pandemic, which led to challenges but also new opportunities. Each project achieved something new to offer adult learners: new pathways and resources, new policies and systems, and new possibilities to accelerate time and reduce costs to degrees and better jobs.

Some school systems tackled this work from the inside. The University of Wisconsin System bridged non-credit and credit programs, improved advising for adult learners, and developed a prior learning assessment policy toolkit. Now, stakeholders indicated there is a continued desire to break down the wall that separates non-credit students from those who participate in credit-bearing degree programs.

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities partnered with faculty and community groups to develop new paths for adult learners and the system’s collaborative on credit for prior learning created a web platform and toolkit to expand the effort.

Meanwhile, the University of Maine System and its partners built on their micro-credential initiative to create new micro-credentials for incarcerated learners, low-income adults, immigrant learners, and Native Americans. Partners from the Maine Department of Education, Office of Adult Education said the “project has been transformative for adult education. It’s helped us see that micro-credentials are the way for us to validate the work we’ve been doing in workforce development.” Virginia Community College System transformed their web tool for veterans into a new portal, Credit2Careers, to help learners see how their knowledge translates to credit and applies to degrees.

Two institutions created partnerships to serve target populations. Nicolet College and the Wisconsin Indian Education Association collaborated with three tribal nations to develop a native studies technical certificate, leading to associate and bachelor’s degrees in indigenous studies. This model was designed by tribal leaders to “strengthen tribal sovereignty and recognize and value traditional Indigenous knowledge.” SUNY Empire State College partnered with CVS Health and University of the Army to evaluate work-based learning, use incremental credentials towards a degree, and collect additional data. Nan Travers from SUNY said, “exploring new models to assess workplace learning has been very successful and allowed the college to recognize learning that may have been ignored previously.”

Latino-led community-based organization Mi Casa Resource Center partnered with the Community College of Aurora and Metropolitan State University of Denver to develop financial services pathways that provided strong wraparound support. This project resulted in policy changes at both postsecondary institutions to remove barriers along with new efforts to engage employers in championing these pathways.

Two All Learning Counts sites were particularly affected by the pandemic: National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) and District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund.

NRAEF developed restaurant manager and line cook apprenticeship programs, but those were halted during COVID. Instead, NRAEF pivoted to create articulation programs with colleges, provide more flexible training to restaurant employees, and find new ways to engage other employees and part-time workers. District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund in Philadelphia developed allied health pathways with Montgomery College for its healthcare and human services workers. While many members who were essential workers during the pandemic had to pause their studies, the new pathways give learners 20+ credits toward a degree.

Other broad-based insights from All Learning Counts projects include:

  • Significant learning occurs outside traditional institutions. Establishing systems, policies, and pathways to document learning across communities, grant credit, and help learners earn credentials is essential. It empowers students to apply their skills and knowledge in new ways in the job market.
  • More on-ramps and flexible paths through college are needed. Building a bridge from non-credit to credit programs recognizes that adult learners successively enter, depart, and reenter institutions as both degree-seeking and non-credit students. Faculty and staff can develop strategies to map essential learning outcomes and activities, identify needed assessments, and modify non-credit curricula to improve credit awards.
  • Partnerships require new ways of working. Some All Learning Counts partnerships were initiated by groups outside of colleges or universities. These projects, as well as those led by institutions, excelled because partners were willing to work together in new ways to modify their approach, address barriers, and expand opportunities for students.
  • Collecting and sharing data on adult learners is key. Often student success dashboards disaggregate by race and ethnicity, but not by student age. Consequently, the trajectories of adult learners, and especially adult students of color, are hidden from view. Examining adult learner data can uncover how policies such as transcript and admission holds create barriers for some students.
  • Ensure credentials have value in the job market. Many students who participated in pilots were motivated by short-term credentials but found that employers were still uncertain what those credentials meant. More work should be done to ensure credentials contribute to career success.

Looking ahead

Our work has just begun on recognizing that all learning counts and connecting it to credentials and degrees. These projects offer starting points for schools and community groups to create and expand innovative pathways. As learners apply more of their skills and knowledge in the job market, their families, educators, employers, and communities also benefit. That’s the power of all learning counts.

Wendy Sedlak, Ph.D., is strategy director for research and evaluation at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation that strives for racial equity as it helps all Americans learn beyond high school.

Julie Johnson, Ed.D., is the founder and principal of StrategyForward Advisors, a higher education policy and strategy consultancy in Washington D.C. and is Lumina Foundation’s project consultant for All Learning Counts.

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