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Credit for breathing

These billboards appear several places in Kansas: "Bachelor's Degree in Just One Year!"

These so-called "accelerated programs" are becoming common, providing " ... a variety of methods to earn credit without setting foot into a classroom." By describing a bachelor's degree as a union card to get in the door, these operations pitch to adults with job and family commitments who "simply do not have the time and money to go back to school."

How do they do this? "Accelerated classes," credit transfer, life-experience credits, professional certificate credits, work-experience credits, military service and test-outs allow you to "earn" a bachelor's degree in just one year. Somehow, they can provide you with this supposed four-year program in just one year because you are just too busy in a full-time job and raising a family. Amazing.

A key to awarding these "fast degrees" is "Prior Learning Assessments," or awarding credit for prior life experiences.

This gimmick now is coming to Kansas public higher education. The Kansas Board of Regents has distributed "Credit for Prior Learning: Best Practices for Kansas Public Institutions. A Guide to Prior Learning Assessment in Kansas" to the academic community for comment.

The innocent-looking Trojan horse in this proposal is the long list of credits by examination that have some limited legitimacy because they already are used by regents universities: Advanced Placement (AP) exams, College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Educational Support (DANTES) Subject Standardized Tests (DSSTs), etc.

However, a rigorous school such as KU might require a score of 5 for AP credit toward a college course while another regents school also might accept a 3 or 4. This proposed document goes far beyond "guidelines" to establish policy. Under the proposed system, all credit for prior learning must transfer across the Kansas system. Therefore, the system drops to the lowest school's criteria.

Limited credit for experiences in the military might be defensible, but only if limited to specific academic skills: An Air Force medic might have the knowledge provided by a human anatomy and physiology class -- or perhaps not. But this proposal goes far beyond the currently recognized AP, CLEP and other established assessments to replace courses with tests. This document makes no distinction between an examination and an education. If this philosophy was applied to law and medical students, a student could sit for the bar exam without taking law school or for the medical boards without completing medical school. While this credit-for-experience plan does not yet destroy those programs, it clearly fails to understand students learn to prepare a case or conduct surgery in their course work, not in preparing for a test. This "prior learning" plan threatens to gut all other fields of academics.

We already have a model for such a disaster in the Kansas dual credit or concurrent enrolment policy. Originally designed for the few exceptional Kansas junior or senior high school students -- our few Doogie Howsers -- it was changed so students who finished their freshman year of high school could take courses for college credit. Designed for a few exceptional students recommended by their high school administrators and envisioned for students attending part-time at a nearby college, it rapidly became a flood of mediocre students taking regular courses at high school for college credit. Turns out, everybody has a Doogie Howser. The result has been many students entering university with a year or more of weak "college credit" and graduating with lesser abilities: essentially a bachelor's degree of three genuine years of college.

This new "Credit for Prior Learning" proposal now risks reducing the value of a Kansas bachelor's degree to just one year. Once this barn door is opened, Kansas schools will race-to-the-bottom as they compete to offer the cheapest degrees in the continued pursuit of tuition. The document even promotes credit-for-prior-learning as "a recruitment tool."

Dual credits taken in high school should be limited to three to six credit hours -- total. Similar tight limits should be placed on "prior learning."

Most citizens and employers recognize today's for-profit and online operations that are diploma mills. But every Kansas citizen who has earned a valid bachelor's degree should be concerned with this new proposal that will devalue the degree they legitimately earned.

In this graduation season, the Kansas student who has worked hard during four years to earn a bona fide bachelor's degree should not be followed across the stage by a "student" who barely has accomplished one year of academic work. Everyone loses if this cheap degree plan passes.

John Richard Schrock is a professor

in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.