For many TCC students, the prospect of attending some of their classes may remind them of one of former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra’s signature lines: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
While there is some value to in-class lessons that include previously acquired knowledge and skills, TCC administrators and counselors generally agree that students are best served by receiving credit for knowledge they already have gained in life and/or on the job. As a result, school academic leaders and academic/veteran counselors have embraced a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) approach that lets qualified students replace traditional classroom courses with earned credits in subjects in which they already are proficient.
The students can have developed this proficiency through life/professional experience or successfully passed standardized exams such as College Board Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams and an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. They also can refer to military experience, prior work or volunteer experience, professional certifications/licenses or have passed on credit academic or trade courses.
The PLA process is an important part of TCC’s participation in the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 60x30 Initiative, which looks to prepare Texans to be competitive leaders in the future workforce. It calls for several goals for students by 2030, the most ambitious of which is to have 60 percent of Texans ages 25 to 34 years earn an academic certificate or degree and have marketable skills that match workplace needs.
Research has shown that students who are awarded PLA credits have higher graduation rates, show greater persistence in their studies and need less time to earn their degree or certificate. As a result, the entire process allows them to complete their certificate or degree sooner, move into a position to start or advance their career and save money because they pay lower total tuition costs and avoid many course- and school-related expenses.
As part of the PLA program, TCC students can earn credits for up to 75 percent of their course credit hours. Students must earn the remaining 25 percent of their credit hours from TCC and be enrolled there at least one full semester.
Rosalyn Walker, TCC’s district director of academic operations, oversees the process with the assistance of a 10-member Institutional Review Council, which meets annually to conduct a program review, identify changes in academic credit criteria and identify ways to improve or streamline the credit- award process.
“Our task is to conduct an annual review that looks at the program’s processes, especially with tests and program content,” said Walker. “My job is to contact departments and then to analyze what they are doing or how their tests or course content may have changed. It’s really to get some input, especially when something like course content or training has been approved or updated. I also look at any type of prior learning that does not come from sitting in a classroom. Then I share that information with the program review council and advisors for students and veterans.
It’s really to help the students save class time and costs. To help them avoid having to sit in a semester-long class reviewing information or training that they already possess.
District Director of Academic Operations
Walker says she is very encouraged as she watches trends in the prior learning field. “I think it is going to continue to increase. There are so many industry certifications now that we can tap into to get our students to move ahead faster,” she said. “Plus, the military is coming together a little more. They are trying to standardize their testing criteria and streamline their processes. Then veterans will be able to use their benefits more efficiently and effectively.”
One of the most popular PLA-oriented programs is TCC’s Nursing and Health Care Professions track, says Chelsey Smithley, career and technical education academic advisor.
Smithley has been a PLA advisor in the nursing program for several years. During that time, she has seen student nurse participation in the emerging program grow about 60 percent from the first year to the 2020 spring semester.
She spent the past three years slowly but surely simplifying the process so students can easily and quickly take advantage of the opportunity to upgrade their certification. “Many of those students used to have a certificate because that was all the job market required. Now, employers and institutions want to see advanced certification and ongoing improvement in their education and expertise,” she said.
“Dating as far back as the 1970s, we have had quite a few students get though the nursing program without fully qualifying for their certificates. They just wanted to get their professional training and find a job,” Smithley said. “Now a lot of them are realizing they need that next step of certification to be able to continue to advance their careers.”
Continually refining and simplifying the process is important. “We don’t want students who are already working in the field to say it is too hard and takes too long to get their certificate or degree. They’re often shocked by how student-friendly the process has become and how easily and quickly it can make them more marketable and professional,” Smithley added.
Marketability and scholastic achievement are especially important to Christopher Hunt and Valerie Groll, TCC military veteran student counselors.
Hunt, who is based at the TCC Northeast Veteran Resource Center, is a U.S. Air Force veteran from the Desert Storm conflict era and has been active in the PLA process for almost two years. During that time, he has helped about a half-dozen students to better understand and take advantage of the larger academic/technical opportunity their military service created for them.
“They just don’t realize how much their experience can translate into civilian-world credits,” Hunt said. “While we are checking their transcripts, we can share information on related areas like writing résumés and then check to see what other opportunities are, given their experience. We can really help them in identifying and transferring credits because we know what to look for.”
Hunt said TCC’s PLA efforts help many veterans expedite their pursuit of a four-year degree and beyond.
What they don’t always realize is that they can qualify for up to 42 credits with Tarrant County College, then they can finish their bachelor’s degree in only three semesters. They may even qualify for a double degree at the university level. We focus on getting benefits that transfer to the university level and then maybe they can even get up to eight more elective credits.
Groll, a veterans’ counselor at TCC Trinity River, said she notices that many of the veterans she advises are focused on a bigger picture. “They want to go to school and then go back to work. They want to serve the economy. But what they really want is to continue to have a sense of mission in their lives. It is healthier for them to have a mission that guides them and puts everything in perspective,” she said.
Groll said she often helps students identify education tracks that lead them into careers that reflect their experience and expertise. “They seem to be most successful when they pursue areas where their experience is most likely to translate into qualified PLA credits. If their program does not parallel their experience in the military, they have no equivalent training that qualifies for direct articulation with military credits. The students who most benefit are students who do something in similar professions or programs that parallel their areas of military service.”
She added that military certification in skills jobs (information technology, welding and logistics, for example) often can be credited against veterans’ class loads, which translates into a faster track to graduation.
Hunt and Groll agree that the most student-friendly way to start the process is a discussion with a TCC-designated contact person or counselor for the process. TCC has two-to-three contact people on each campus who are knowledgeable about the process and can provide personal insights, as well as information and support that can make the application process as easy as possible. They also can steer students to detailed program information and refer them to students who are currently enrolled in the program or who have used it to shorten their in-class time and lower their overall tuition and course-related expenses.
In addition, TCC has veterans’ counselors/advisors on the Northeast, Northwest, South, Southeast and Trinity River campuses who are qualified to manage the paperwork, processes and factors that are unique to military veterans.
Smithley has seen consistent growth in interest in the PLA process because of the word-of-mouth endorsements by current and former students who are making their friends and colleagues aware of its benefits. It’s a steady growth trend that TCC staff and counselors all agree is noticeable throughout TCC’s trade and academic tracks.
“We all are working toward creating situations where military credit can be applied and new degree plans can be developed,” Hunt said. “This could be great. It could be another way for veterans to maximize their military training and experience by translating it into practical credits that can help to make their college degrees more easily and affordably attainable.”