Slow economy spurs quick degrees
By Deborah Radcliff
(IDG) -- Louis Drzewiecki, a senior data analyst at United Healthcare Corp. in Minneapolis, decided three years ago to pursue a master's degree. But there was a problem. He still needed to complete his bachelor's degree, and of the 100 units he had earned 12 years earlier, his local state college would only accept 30. So he took advantage of a regionally accredited program at Charter Oak State College in New Britain, Connecticut, where most of those credits transferred.
Drzewiecki also took an aptitude test at Charter Oak, which allowed him to get credit for a second semester of English. And he earned college credits for his certifications in Java, data file structures and discrete math. When Drzewiecki's credits were totaled, he needed just five courses to complete his bachelor's degree in computer science. And his bachelor's fully transferred to the state college, where he completed his master of science degree in January of last year.
With employers being more picky in today's tight job market, there's no time like the present to finish that degree, say hiring managers and recruiters. But, like Drzewiecki, students attending traditional universities are often faced with having to start over again.
Traditional four-year universities accept only a set amount of transferable credits toward bachelor's degrees. And while you can lobby for credits for professional training and work experience, such universities typically don't accept them. That's why a growing number of working students are turning to regionally accredited, adult-friendly universities that evaluate old college credits, technical and business certifications, work training and proficiencies and then apply them toward a degree.
"Our motto is, 'What you know is more important than where or how you learned it,' " explains Jerome Atkins, dean of technology and engineering at Excelsior College in Albany, New York.
But with so many adult learning programs to choose from, it's tough to match a particular college to your past experience and future goals, according to Peter Proehl, a counselor at Degree Consulting Services in Santa Rosa, California.
Some of these fast-track programs, such as Excelsior's, emphasize college equivalency tests and pre-evaluated workplace and military training, which includes technical and other work-related certifications. Other programs, such as that of Charter Oak, specialize in "life portfolios" that document and test college-level skills developed through life and work experience. And if you're pursuing a graduate degree, it's a whole different ballgame.
Lee Crow, a network administrator at a U.S.-based telecommunications company who's working in Doha, Qatar, says the high number of specialized programs has made it nearly impossible to decide which school is best suited to meet his particular needs for distance learning, distance testing and military accreditation.
"There's too much information," says Crow. "Different schools offer extremely different methods to obtaining a degree. Not knowing what method best suits me, it's hard to take that leap and enroll."
For now, Crow is awaiting a response to his application to Excelsior. He may be surprised. Excelsior, which charges about $750 to register and $450 per year for administration, accepts credits for a wide range of military and professional training programs and certifications. So Crow's two years in the U.S. Navy's electronics and nuclear reactor operator training programs, combined with his oral and written communications skills and six IT certifications, may net him a degree program requiring very few additional courses, according to Atkins.
Like Crow, you may be surprised to find that your company's training programs are already preapproved for college credits through the American Council on Education (ACE), a Washington-based, 1,800-member trade association for higher education.
Since 1974, ACE has evaluated 10,000 courses and examinations for businesses, trade associations and government agencies. Its recommendations are issued to more than 1,200 participating colleges and universities. Some 300 business training programs are approved for accreditation by ACE, including those of Fortune 500 companies such as AT&T Corp., Citigroup Inc. and General Motors Corp. (For a list of course providers, go to www.acenet.edu/calec/corporate/participating_orgs.cfm.)
Many schools, such as the University of Phoenix in Seattle, have articulation agreements with local employers that allow students who work at those companies to get credit for training programs they have taken. Most colleges list these articulation agreements on their Web site recruiting pages.
For those without transferable workplace training or experience, it may make sense to build a life portfolio that includes college-level learning acquired through things such as work, the military, hobbies, reading and travel, according to Earn College Credit for What You Know by Lois Lamdin (Kendall/Hunt, 1997).
For example, white papers, published articles and speaking engagements can count as written and oral communications credits. Business accounting may apply toward mathematics requirements.
But developing an experience portfolio and assigning college credit to that experience is difficult to get right, according to Proehl and others. That's why Excelsior frowns on portfolios, says Atkins. And it's probably illegal for a college to sell a degree based on a portfolio alone, according to academic experts.
"The work experience has always been a red flag for me. These are too close to the degree mills that say, 'Give me a letter and some money, and I'll give you a degree,'" says Thomas Kevin, a computer consultant in Detroit who completed his bachelor's degree in operations management at Regents College (which is now Excelsior) in 1997.
One exception is the regionally accredited Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey, says Proehl. "[At] Thomas Edison, you can [earn] a complete degree for portfolio experience, but it's pretty hard to do," he says.
Eric Haberkamp, a staff consultant at Exodus Professional Services in Dallas, banked 80 credits at Edison based on past college experience. He added to that total by building portfolio credits for his work experience and technical knowledge and by taking equivalency tests administered at a local library by an Edison-approved provost. Now Haberkamp needs to take seven or eight classes at the University of Texas at Arlington to earn his bachelor's degree, which will be issued by Edison State.
Life-credit programs aren't well suited for graduate degrees, which require students to possess high-level proficiencies. So speeding up the graduate degree process often means accumulating units in the fastest way possible: via an accelerated program.
In December 2000, Dan Blanchard sped through a 36-unit degree program in just 15 months. Blanchard, senior director of systems and network management at Marriott International Inc. in Bethesda, Maryland, enrolled in a $28,000 fast-track program at the Ashburn, Virginia, campus of The George Washington University called the Executive Master of Science in Information Systems.
He says he selected that program because other regional fast-track master's programs offered only degrees in "general studies." Blanchard, however, wanted an information systems degree.
These programs aren't for the fainthearted. The program at George Washington is so competitive that out of 80 preapplications received annually, a maximum of only 21 students are chosen to start the program each year, says Sandy Rose, administrative director for master of science and information systems technology programs.
There's a reason for such pickiness. Each new class of students must collaborate on a project throughout the program -- meaning those students are expected to bring a certain level of problem-solving savvy into these collaborations. "It's a very intense experience," says Blanchard, "but well worth it."
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