Moving from a Degree-Centric Postsecondary System to an Incremental Credentialing System: What Happens to Learners’ Financing Options?

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Incremental Credentialing

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Practices: Retro Award As You Go


Practices: Retro Award As You Go

Retro Award As You Go credentials recognize learning that has already been acquired but not yet officially recognized with a credential. These credentials often target adult learners who have completed some college coursework but do not hold a degree or certificate. They may also recognize learning milestones reached before completing a degree, such as general education requirements. Retro Award As You Go credentials can provide a way for learners to earn credentials for what they already know and can do, and they offer pathways toward degree completion and/or workplace advancement. Additionally, these credentials link general education studies with many different fields and industries and formally recognize prior learning.

Historically excluded or overlooked populations are disproportionately represented among students who have earned sufficient credit for a degree, but have not been awarded one. Recognizing this missed opportunity for students—and for their families, potential employers, and communities—so-called “reverse transfer” ensures students are awarded the degrees they have earned. According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), the reverse transfer process allows students who have completed degree requirements at a four-year institution to combine credits from their four-year institution with those they previously earned at a community college to be awarded an associate degree. The primary goal of reverse transfer is to ensure that students are given the degrees they have earned by transferring credits earned at a four-year institution back to the two-year institution where they started. A recent Texas study revealed that Latina/Latino students, those from low-income backgrounds, and adult learners who receive a reclaimed associate degree through reverse transfer benefit from statewide reverse transfer policies and are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than are peers who are not awarded a degree before transferring.

Prior learning assessment (PLA)—also known as credit for prior learning or recognition of prior learning—is a method for assigning value to college-level learning that has taken place outside formal educational institutions—that is,  making it count toward degrees or other credentials. The SUNY micro-study found that marginalized students tend to use more support in the PLA process compared to their counterparts, and they were the only ones who persisted to the end and submitted PLAs. The study suggests that marginalized students tend to work better with more support and build a solid relationship with their advisor or evaluator, leading to greater persistence. Another study found that PLA increased the likelihood of completion for Latina/Latino, Black, and White adult students. It also showed that lower-income adult students with PLA were more likely to complete programs and earn credentials.

After three years of implementation, College Unbound tripled the percentage of enrolled students earning credit for prior learning. Nearly all graduates (96 percent) had earned such credit, with an average of 21 credits earned in the 2021-22 academic year. In a May 2023 essay, Michelle Navarre Cleary, a longtime expert in adult education, said that, if truly committed to equity, higher education must recognize and credit the learning of Black and Latina/Latino students whose life experience has not been formally acknowledged. To achieve this, College Unbound used four approaches to incorporate CPL: (1) designing CPL with adult learners, (2) using design thinking to make big changes, (3) requiring CPL as a graduation requirement, and (4) acknowledging biases about who can participate in higher education.

Related work/initiatives:

Halley Sutton – Increase completion rates, degree equity with reverse credit transfer

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