Cristy Sugarman of North Shore Community College Shares How Credit for Prior Learning Can Motivate Students of All Backgrounds
As technology advances and becomes more sophisticated, higher education has to adapt to evaluate all kinds of new certifications. So how are colleges and universities changing to accept a wider spread of credentials? According to Dr. Cristy Sugarman, the Director for the Center for Alternative Studies and Educational Testing at North Shore Community College, credit for prior learning has shifted along with the lives of the students who are seeking credentials.
“Although credit for prior learning is kind of primarily aimed at what we call nontraditional [students]…I would like to personally coin the phrase post-traditional. Because the kind of students that we’re seeing now, they’re not straight out of high school,” she says.
“Especially at community colleges, they have jobs, they have families to look after. Basically, their primary responsibilities lie outside of school. And within that context, they’re trying to either get a new job, up-skill, get a pay raise, get a promotion, change fields, just learn more about something that they become passionate about.”
As our life spans increase, students are starting to enter school at different times in their lives. Cristy says higher education needs to be better prepared to accommodate students who may be coming back to school after being in the workforce.
“A lot of people who have been out of school for a while can lack a little bit of confidence when it comes to re-entering school,” says Sugarman. “So to come into an academic environment, it’s easy to feel discouraged.”
“But when somebody is honoring the work that you’ve already done and saying, ‘Hey, you can do this…And guess what? It’s college level experience and you can apply this towards a degree.’ It’s very motivating,” she says.
Listen in to our interview with Dr. Cristy Sugarman to learn more about how higher ed evaluation of credits is shifting, and how North Shore Community College’s tactics could impact a new generation of students.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times. And today we’re speaking with Cristy Sugarman. Cristy is the director for the Center for Alternatives Studies and Educational Testing at North Shore Community College in Lynn, Massachusetts. Cristy is a featured speaker at our upcoming event Work +EDU. Cristy, thanks so much for your time today.
Cristy Sugarman: Thank you, Hester.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Maybe you could begin by telling us a little bit about your role at North Shore and a little bit about the center?
Cristy Sugarman: Sure. I am the director of what we call here the Center for Alternative Studies and Educational Testing. We have offices across our two campuses in Danvers and Lynn. We mirror our operations across the two campuses. And our office is primarily responsible for one, all the testing that goes on in all the college. So we do all the placement testing. We do high school equivalency testing. We do T’s testing, as well as all the PLA testing that we do.
Cristy Sugarman: We see all of the students at the college pretty much right from the beginning of when they start to do with the placement testing. Again with the PLA, here we call it alternative studies. We do the CLEP and the DANTES. In terms of tests and examinations we do some Excelsior testing. We also do local evaluations of credit for prior learning too. We do portfolios, certification and licensure, any kind of non-credit courses that folks do outside of a college setting. Basically any learning that takes place outside of a traditional college setting. We put it together as long as it’s college-level learning, and it applies to a person’s program. We put it together for our content expert, which is the faculty, to be able to evaluate. So we are very fortunate to have not only a very central role within the college, but a unique one. And because our prior learning assessment programs have been around for I think over 40 years now, so I can’t really take credit for it. I stand on, you know, the shoulders of giants. But as you can imagine, the credit for prior learning is very well established here. It’s been institutionalized in such a way, we have it down to a tee.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, you mentioned 40 years. And that was going to be my next question for you. Let’s talk a little bit about the history of the center, and how it began.
Cristy Sugarman: Sure. So it was interesting, when I was doing a presentation as part of a grant that we took part in last year. I kind of was going back through the history and I found this article that came from a gentleman who was some kind of foreman that worked for G.E. And I think it was in 1974 or something like that. And he was crediting North Shore Community College with helping him upskill to go to a further management level. I think it started with the portfolios back then. So it was something where the the person would come and demonstrate.
Cristy Sugarman: And I believe then, because you know, the computers weren’t what they are now, would demonstrate both in writing and in person sitting with a faculty member their college level knowledge to be able to apply it towards getting certified or getting a degree. So that was way back then. Back then it was a different department from the testing center. It grew I think from that kind of portfolio type demonstration. As I understand it, because I wasn’t here back then, things kept getting added as the program grew. So when you then you have the nationally normed testing like CLEP and DANTES would have started being utilized by then.
Cristy Sugarman: Then folks are looking at kind of some military stuff that’s coming out. New certifications are coming out all the time, particularly as technology gets more and more sophisticated. Then they combined all the testing functions of the college with all the credit for prior learning functions and really just turned into kind of the Center for Alternative Studies. I think we’re really on the cutting edge of some really best practice practices, for lack of a better word, in terms of connecting people with education and transitioning them into the workforce or upskilling them so that they can get the kind of life that they deserve.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So a number of different phrases and other exams I’m hearing from you. CLEPs, DANTES, for prior learning and prior learning assessment. Maybe we can dive into those four different words and you can tell us a little bit more about what they represent.
Cristy Sugarman: Sure. So credit for prior learning, prior learning assessment, experiential education, alternative studies, life learning’s not a particular phrase that I like, but all of these are basically the same thing. All of these are describing a program by which learning that has occurred outside the traditional classroom can be applied towards academic credit through a process of evaluation.
Cristy Sugarman: When we’re talking about CLEP and DANTES is actually now called DSST. What we’re talking about is nationally norm suites of examinations. Everything from sort of math to history to business. CLEP is the main one. DSST is has a smaller suite of different kinds of examinations, they tend to focus on business. So these are basically folks that are developing exams through which by taking them, students can demonstrate their college level learning in a particular subject and apply it to get credit towards that subject so that they don’t have to duplicate their learning.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So who are the people who come into your office, you know, what are their backgrounds? How did they find you? Tell us a little bit more about who who your clients are.
Cristy Sugarman: So we work really hard on having them try to find us because, as you can imagine, credit for prior learning is not really an intuitive concept. And unless you’re in the field, you wouldn’t really know where to start, how to look for it. Part of what we did to help that — because what we want to do is we want to make sure that we can, for lack of a better word, capture students early enough in their academic or career trajectory so that they’re not taking courses that they don’t need to take, basically.
Cristy Sugarman: The biggest shame is, you know, if you catch a student, they’re already three quarters of the way through their studies and you look at their program study sheet or their pathway sheet, and you see that they’ve already taken the courses that you could have offered them credit for prior learning for. So we want to avoid that. We want to get them as near the beginning as possible.
Cristy Sugarman: One way that we’ve been able to do that, and I mentioned a grant before, was to build a state wide web site amongst the 15 community colleges that basically any prospective students, public facing, so any prospective students or existing students or whoever can go on there. It’s called My Experience Count Stop Mass Dot Edu and any students can go on there and they can take a self-assessment. It’s called a CPO wizard. It will come up with kind of a resume of their past experiences. Anything that they think that they might be able to apply. And if they set up an account it will also connect them to a CPL specialist at the college of their choice, who will then reach out to them and have a conversation. In terms of our clientelle. Wow, it really runs the gamut. Anybody who’s in transition, really.
Cristy Sugarman: I mean, although credit for prior learning is kind of primarily aimed at what we call nontraditional, but I would like to personally coin the phrase post-traditional, because that’s the kind of students that we’re seeing now, they’re not straight out of high school. You know, they have, especially at community colleges, they have jobs, they have families to look after. Basically their primary responsibilities lie outside of school. And within that context, they’re trying to either get a new job, upskill, get a pay raise, get a promotion, change fields, just learn more about something that they become passionate about. So even though I guess you could say from that point of view, you are talking about most people with experience under their belts. We’re not in a day and age where people, they go through school and then they do something and then they’re in that company, and then they climb through the ranks and they get — you know, it doesn’t work like that anymore. You know, people take on things at different times. Our lifespans are increasing. I think this kind of opportunity for anybody in transition is great.
Cristy Sugarman: Plus, you have a lot of people who have been out of school for a while can lack a little bit of confidence when it comes to re-entering school. It’s a whole new world probably from when they were last there, if they were ever last there. In terms of everything from the jargon, to how the work is done, to what kind of work is done. So to come into an academic environment, it’s easy to feel discouraged. But when somebody is honoring the work that you’ve already done and saying, hey, you can do this, and you do know what you’re talking about and you do have experience. And guess what? It’s college level experience. And you can apply this towards a degree. It’s very motivating for folks.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So obviously North Shore Community College has an amazing history in this type of work. You mentioned the statewide initiative now in prior learning assessment and credit for prior learning. So tell us a little bit about North Shore Community College’s role in this statewide initiative.
Cristy Sugarman: We’ve found that we were really kind of a little bit ahead of the game in terms of credit for prior learning. And knowing that in an environment of scarce resources, colleges can in no way afford to build any kind of infrastructure around something like this. We are in a position that we could do a lot of the work that could that could go to an advisory board consisting of all the community colleges across the state. So basically we led the statewide credit for prior learning project. The elements or deliverables of that were five regional trainings where we trained faculty and staff from across Massachusetts, both in the use of the new website and also to help them raise awareness of credit for prior learning. Because again that’s the main thing. And also to broaden and spread around some best practice ways to do CPLs, activities by which to do CPLs.
Cristy Sugarman: And then also we had a marketing tool kit which each of the campuses could use however they saw fit. And a think tank, which consisted of folks — we were very lucky because we had a group of practitioners that had been informally meeting for a couple of years. So we had not only the support of our administrations, but we had the kind of ground up support and the ground up effort. So it was really good, it kind of coalesced in the middle and North Shore Community College was fortunate to lead that effort.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So one of the things that strikes me about the prior learning assessment piece is that, and maybe I have this wrong, but it seems that you have people coming from a lot of different professional backgrounds so you have a lot of unique cases that need to be evaluated.
Cristy Sugarman: Yes.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Is that — I mean how do you scale to cope with all of that sort of custom assessment work?
Cristy Sugarman: So we do we divide our methods of evaluation into streams. And each stream is a button down system whereby the artifacts that demonstrate the college level learning are collected from the student. They are recorded. They go out to the requisite faculty for evaluation. They come back to us. Everything down to a transcription is kind of really button down.
Cristy Sugarman: So our streams are everything from, let’s say, what we call ECC, which is evaluation credit by certificate. ECP, which is evaluation credit by portfolio. ECI, which is evaluation credit by internal articulation. And on and on. So what we do is when a student comes to us, this is a practice instituted since I’ve been here. When a student comes to us with an application for one of these streams, if it’s something that we haven’t already done before, we not only put it through the usual requisite approvals, but it also goes through our governance. So it goes to our curriculum committee.
Cristy Sugarman: Once it’s gone through our curriculum committee it goes what we call on the books. You start to develop a portfolio of different credentials basically that people can bring to you, a portfolio of different ways that people can demonstrate the learning for particular kinds of professions or particular kinds of situations. About 30 percent of our curriculum I believe is crosswalk to a PLA option. So if you’re doing it like that, and you’re sort of keeping track of what’s coming in and you’re making sure that it goes through governance, it goes on the books.
Cristy Sugarman: It then becomes not such a case by case issue. Because you start seeing people coming in with the same qualifications for the same thing. And once it’s gone through curriculum, well if somebody else has done that, then obviously the next person that comes in with it, that’s okay, they can do that. So we can skip that whole evaluation thing because it’s already been done and go straight to transcription.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So in a best case scenario, and I’m thinking about the college itself. I’m also thinking about the students who are coming in. What is a best case scenario? And how is this prior learning assessment used to facilitate success on both sides?
Cristy Sugarman: Let’s take the military, our military credit for prior learning, as kind of an exemplar of what I like to see. It doesn’t always work like this. What happens with our military students, active military veterans, you know, is that they go to the leader of the veterans center. She takes them through their benefits and everything like that. Then she sends them to us with their joint services transcript. Military credentials are another thing that we have on our books as well. So either through knowledge of the curriculum and through what’s already on the books, our military transcripts specialist can see what credits they can apply.
Cristy Sugarman: We either go through the requisite signature base or we take right off the books. It goes on their transcript and on their record prior to them having to take any courses. That’s what I like. That’s the way I like it to happen. Now, you know, because prior learning assessment as it is somewhat, you know, systematized here, our advisors do know about it. It’s kind of making its way into orientation as orientation gets updated and revised. So from our point of view the sooner the better. A) It’s a great motivational start for students. I mean, if you don’t have to start from A and go to Z, why would you? You know, it’s great you can start from M and go to Z, you know. You’re already like some of the way there, you know, it’s great. It’s a great motivator. Students that — Kale did a study in 2010: Refueling the Race to Postsecondary Success, I think it was called. And that study showed — it actually showed pretty definitively that students with credit for prior learning are two and a half times more likely to graduate.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Wow.
Cristy Sugarman: And if you combine that with the benefits of people who might not even really be considering college because of costs, because they don’t feel that they can do it.
Cristy Sugarman: If you can look at getting those folks enrolled, the ones that are interested but feel that there are too many obstacles. If you can get those folks enrolled and get them enrolled and kickstarted with some credits, then that also benefits students that way. So it’s not only just the success, I believe it’s also access for people that might not feel that they can do it or they can afford it.
Hester Tinti-Kane: And those are new populations for the institution to be looking to as well. You know, how do we start looking towards these types of populations to market, bring them in, get them enrolled and into the programs.
Cristy Sugarman: Absolutely. And it works. It’s a kind of a win win for everybody because we need our our workforce. You know, we know we need more skilled workers. We know we need folks that need to be upskilled. We know that the whole thing being brought up a level is good for everybody, you know. Traditional marketing efforts have been aimed at, you know, your person that leaves high school. Our demographic is changing anyway.
Cristy Sugarman: The workforce needs upskilling. The high school population is shrinking. I mean there’s kind of a confluence of events here that’s coming together to make. And PLA isn’t the only strategy, but it’s a strategy. And a proven strategy that is again a win win situation I think for everybody.
Hester Tinti-Kane: I think that’s a great place for us to wrap up the conversation. Thank you so much, Cristy, for your time today.
Cristy Sugarman: Thank you very much.
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Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.