PEOPLE who haven't gone to college may be walking around with the makings of a degree and never know it. The ``makings'' come from work and life experiences that can be transformed into college credits. The process of turning job experience as a bank teller, for example, into credit for Business 101 goes by various names, such as ``experiential learning,'' or ``assessment of prior learning.'' Whichever, the underlying idea is that adults - in the normal course of their lives - often have acquired enough skills and knowledge to get them started on a degree.
Where most forms of ``alternative'' education seek to make school more like life, ``experiential learning'' recognizes that life can be a school.
It's a concept that's been around since the mid-'60s, but with housewives reentering the job market and laid-off workers in need of retraining, it's picking up steam. In 1974, colleges and universities had awarded 600,000 credit hours for life experience. By 1981, that figure had doubled.
``Our sense is that the trend is continuing, that it's becoming more and more of a common practice,'' says Barry Sheckley, New England regional officer for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. The 500-member CAEL works with colleges to teach faculty how to perform experiential learning evaluations.
And with a shrinking pool of younger students, colleges and universities are looking for ways to attract adult learners who have neither time, money, nor inclination to start college from the bottom up.
Can something as elusive as ``life experience'' really substitute for the rigors of classroom study?
Detractors say the two kinds of learning are like apples and oranges. But the idea gained credibility in 1974 when the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which produces the Scholastic Aptitude Test and Graduate Record Exam, found that there were academically acceptable ways to measure life experience.
Ronald E. Lemay had been a law enforcement officer in New Hampshire when an accident made it necessary for him to leave the force. At the School for Lifelong Learning, in Durham, N.H., he received 56 credit hours in prior learning assessment, most of it in courses related to law enforcement. He also received 12 credit hours from the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), a national program of credit-by-examination. He completed his coursework and is now in his last year of law school in Oregon.
That kind of speedy degree is unusual, say those in the field. More often, the head start will be in the 12- to 20-credit range.
Generally, students locate a college or university that has one of these programs and, with faculty assistance, figure out the skills for which they might gain academic credit. Then they arrange to take tests in their field created by CLEP, or else they apply to be tested directly by a faculty member.
Many students develop a portfolio describing their experience and the skills derived. ``The portfolio can be equated to what in a graduate program is the defense of a thesis,'' says Al Hall, dean of the School for Lifelong Learning.
The process has acquired a bad reputation in some quarters because of so-called ``degree mills,'' unaccredited institutions promising quick degrees without going to school. The established companies firmly distance themselves from these: ``Any school that says, `Oh you did so and so, we'll give you three units,' you're on thin ice,'' says Mary Ellis, vice-president of CAEL.
Christopher Lovelock, a former faculty member at the Harvard Business School, now an author and consultant, is concerned by what he sees as an ``institutional bidding war'' for students by upping the credits they'll give for life experience. What may be worse, he says, is the compromising of the degree itself.
``Academic learning will emphasize development of conceptual frameworks, analytic technique, and a historical review of development of the field,'' says Mr. Lovelock. ``Experiential learning emphasizes learning on the job. You can't say one is better. ... But issuing a degree confuses the two. A degree implies you have the theoretical framework, but you may just have practical experience.''
Some in the field are concerned about quality control. ``The accreditation of one's experience at simply being alive and having pursued careers, travel, etc., and equating that with college level work of high quality, is a difficult proposition at best,'' says Jack Hoy, president of the New England Board of Higher Education. ``It's absolutely imperative that the quality be high or higher than campus-based traditional programs, so that the student will get what he needs.''
Dr. Sheckley counters that standards for the groups CAEL works with are more rigorous than those for classroom learning. ``It often becomes a case of diminishing the standards of the portfolio so it becomes more in line with what's expected in classroom.''
Henriette Huybregts, alternative learning accreditation program adviser at the Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, Mass., says the process ``absolutely'' does not result in watered-down degrees. ``A person coming in with a lot of experience but who is not able to translate it, doesn't get credit. We often have to say no.''