The assets between your ears: the new movement to give college credit for the things you already know.

Author:Carey, Kevin

Deep in the recesses of my spam filter, among phishing lures and ads for unregulated "enhancing" pharmaceuticals, vaguely named online universities occasionally promise to transform my valuable personal and professional accomplishments into a convenient and inexpensive college degree. The pitch has been around for decades, quickly migrating from one form of cheap, marginal media--matchbook covers, the back pages of men's magazines--to another. "Credit for life experience" is well-understood shorthand for "sketchy diploma mill that could get you fired from a real job in twenty years if you're not careful."

It may also be a great idea whose time has finally come.

The U.S. economy desperately needs more Americans with college credentials: by 2018, more than 60 percent of U.S. job openings will require some form of post-secondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Unfortunately, our existing system of colleges and universities doesn't appear up to the challenge. The richest, most well-known schools have little interest in enrolling and graduating more students--prestige in higher education, after all, is measured by how many applicants you turn away. Many public colleges and universities have experienced severe budget cuts since the 2008 recession, resulting in higher prices and fewer course offerings for students. Some (although certainly not all) of the for-profit colleges that have grown rapidly over the last decade used questionable recruitment tactics to lure students into borrowing too much money for low-value degrees. The higher education industry as a whole is caught in an upward price spiral that makes pushing millions of new students through college a dauntingly expensive proposition.

Meanwhile, after years of stagnant wages, and growing debt burdens, followed by a devastating recession, few families have the savings they would need to be able to send a student to school for that ever-more-expensive credential that might enhance his or her earnings power. A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that the 54 percent decline in home equity experienced by low- and middle-income families may have led to reduced college enrollment among the children of these families by as much as 30 percent.

Which is why more people are starting to ask: Is there a way to get students legitimate college credit without the college itself?

Enter "credit for life experience," or, to use the currently...

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