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College credit for Wal-Mart work: Should doing a job count toward degrees?

Wal-Mart and other companies are giving their employees college credit for skills they've learned on the job. The extra credit is the boost many workers need to finish stalled degrees.

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General resistance to experiential-learning credits was strong in the 1970s but has largely faded, Ms. Tate says. "There are still pockets of faculty who say, 'If you didn't learn it here on this campus ... I don't support [giving you credit].' ... But if the Wal-Mart program really is a good one, it could help to spread the practice of [prior learning] assessment throughout the corporate world and help a lot of working people get credentials."

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College students who start off with such credits are more likely to complete an associate's or bachelor's degree, according to a recent CAEL study of 48 postsecondary institutions.

For Brian Gentile, starting college wasn't a problem. But after taking classes on and off for 20 years, he decided it was time to get his bachelor's degree in computer and information science.

Through the University of Mary­land University College, which caters to working adults, he earned 15 credits – the equivalent of five classes – for learning he's accomplished in his IT jobs. They cost one-third of what is charged for regular class credits. Better yet, he says, "it basically saved me a year.... It made me think, 'OK, I can actually finish this degree finally.' "

But those 15 credits weren't just handed over. He had to take a semester-long class to put together a portfolio documenting what he'd mastered. Trained faculty evaluate portfolios before granting credits. "It was a ton of work," he says.

Mr. Gentile's credits were for courses such as "Windows Network Infrastructure" – a subject he says was better learned "in real life," where he ran into snags and people issues that usually don't happen in class.

As for Wal-Mart's Lifelong Learning Program, APU, which is based in Charles Town, W.Va., is rigorously evaluating the types of learning involved in the company's jobs, says Karan Powell, senior vice president and academic dean. From there, it will match up equivalent course credits. Cashiers, for instance, can receive six free credits toward courses such as customer relations.

With some free credits and a 15 percent discount, Wal-Mart employees can save a considerable amount on tuition. Some observers, however, have raised questions about the affordability factor for low-wage workers. Over the next three years, Wal-Mart has promised to contribute $50 million to help employees pursue college courses.

Since the 1970s, private companies have paid the American Council on Education, a Washington higher-education association, to evaluate their training for potential credits. The Wal-Mart announcement in June has prompted more corporate calls to ACE about how to have training evaluated, says Jim Selbe, ACE's assistant vice president for lifelong learning.