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Front Range Community College's Larimer County campus in Fort Collins on March 6, 2020. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Laura Seitz spent more time in a clinic than a classroom as she learned how to become a medical assistant but still earned college credit toward her certification.

She was enrolled at Front Range Community College, but most of her practical education came at Associates in Family Medicine in Fort Collins. There, she trained with a professional on how to assist patients, give vaccines and facilitate tests for those with diabetes or the flu.

“Rather than being in classes the whole time, we got to get real life experience,” said Seitz, who took part in a medical assistant apprenticeship that secured her a job at the clinic where she still works.

Other students across Colorado are also receiving college credit for their work experience, though they’re leaning on their work history, applying what they’ve learned in careers — long and short — as credits that can accelerate their career paths moving forward.

Colorado lawmakers hope to help more students expand their career prospects by better translating work-based learning into college credit at a time when the Colorado Department of Higher Education is pushing for 66% of adults in the state to have completed a postsecondary credential, such as a degree or certificate, by 2025.

Laura Seitz, a medical assistant at Associates in Family Medicine in Fort Collins, draws up a medication on March 6, 2020. Seitz, who attended Front Range Community College, completed an apprenticeship at the clinic in order to become a medical assistant and was able to skip a few classes because of her experience learning on the job. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Through House Bill 1002, legislators are setting out to formalize a statewide system that two- and four-year public higher education institutions could follow in order to award students academic credit for their work experience. That approach could save working adults both time and money in completing credentials and degrees, proponents say, with additional benefits for employers needing to fill in-demand jobs in fast-growing industries.

It’s a different entry point to post-secondary education, one that proponents also say helps extend access to students who may not otherwise have envisioned themselves pursuing college-level coursework — including working adults who want to advance their careers.

“This opens a door for them that they had never known before,” said lead sponsor Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat.

It’s not necessarily a revolutionary step, though. While schools are not currently required to offer credit for a student’s work history, converting experience on the job into college credit is already happening at some schools in Colorado, according to Kelly Caufield, vice president of government affairs at Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders focused on quality education.

But a statewide policy requiring public two- and four-year institutions to follow standards for those students seeking credit from their time on the job would put Colorado among states on the cutting edge.

McLachlan’s bill was unanimously passed out of the House Education Committee in January and is currently in appropriations. The legislation is also being sponsored by Rep. Mark Baisley, a Roxborough Park Republican; Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat; and Sen. Tammy Story, a Conifer Democrat. A similar measure failed last year.

Dome of Colorado state Capitol building on July 21, 2018. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The bill follows the lead of legislation passed in 2017 mandating Colorado colleges and universities to adopt policies around awarding college credit for military training.

“We just saw this as another tool that helps the nontraditional college student make higher education more attainable,” Zenzinger said. “It helps with the cost. It helps recognize them for skill sets that they may already have and then we find ways to align those with degree pathways.”

One key to developing a uniform statewide system will be a focus on Colorado’s fastest-growing industries, according to Caufield, who supports the legislation along with Colorado Succeeds. The nonprofit has been championing the legislation alongside CareerWise Colorado, which creates apprenticeships for students.

Employers from the fastest-growing industries need to chime in on the conversation about how work experience can be translated into college credit, Caufield said. She stressed how important it is that Colorado’s higher education institutions “are being responsive to the needs of employers and the changing needs of our workforce.”

Caufield pointed to the economic benefits that would come from meeting the state’s workforce demands. A 2018 economic impact study conducted in part by Colorado Succeeds estimated that 74% of jobs in the state in 2020 will need some kind of post-secondary education. If Colorado students achieved the education necessary to be competitive in the economy, Colorado would prosper from more than $12 billion in gross domestic product growth in the course of 10 years.

Tailoring programs to local communities’ needs

It’s not clear how many Colorado colleges and universities offer credit to students with a background in the workforce. CDHE doesn’t track that data, said Chris Rasmussen, director of academic affairs for CDHE.

But translating work experience into college credit has long been a part of the mission of community colleges across the country, he said, given that they cater to a lot of adult students, returning students and students who want to secure a degree and have significant work experience to apply toward it.

About 3,000 students gain college credit from outside experience each year through the Colorado Community College System, according to Michael Macklin, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and workforce development. During the 2017-18 school year, students accumulated more than 23,000 credits from prior learning experiences and saved about $3.3 million total.

Seitz, whose education was covered by a scholarship during her apprenticeship, was able to cut down on a few classes during the first semester of her apprenticeship thanks to her work experience.

She would like to see the state formalize the process of converting work experience into college credit across Colorado schools.

With those kinds of programs in place, “it gives more people options,” Seitz said.

Laura Seitz, a medical assistant at Associates in Family Medicine in Fort Collins, sets up a scale that weighs infants on March 6, 2020. Seitz, who attended Front Range Community College, completed an apprenticeship at the clinic where she learned how to help patients, give vaccines and administer medical tests. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado community colleges use the same approaches to determine whether a student deserves credit for their work experience, but they have flexibility throughout the evaluation process, Macklin said. That process is very individualized for students.

One method takes into consideration industry-recognized credentials that are worthy of credit. One example, cited by Nicholas Spezza, dean of instruction at Front Range Community College’s Larimer County campus, would be a commercial driver’s license.

Another common approach involves a faculty member designing a challenge exam for a prospective student in order to verify that individual has the competency and knowledge they would have learned in the corresponding class, Macklin said. Credit can be awarded to a student who passes a challenge exam as it demonstrates they have the same level of understanding and proficiency as someone who took the course.

A third mode of evaluation requires a student to assemble a portfolio of materials that reflect what they’ve learned in the workforce. The portfolio could include work products, certificates and a statement from a supervisor verifying that an individual has the competencies required for a course, Spezza said.

Qualified faculty, most likely the professor teaching the equivalent course, reviews the portfolio to decide whether credit is due, Macklin said.

FRCC, in particular, has embraced the process of converting prior learning experience into college credit, according to Macklin. More than 100 students stacked up credits from work or military experience over the last year, earning 312 credits collectively and saving about $62,000 on tuition fees and books, he said.

Front Range Community College’s Larimer County campus in Fort Collins on March 6, 2020. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Part of Spezza’s focus throughout his 21-year career in higher education has centered on converting work-based experience into college credit. At FRCC, he oversees programs in automotive technology and service and business as well as in heating, ventilation and air conditioning and highway maintenance management.

Within the highway maintenance management program, which Spezza said the college created from scratch in response to industry needs, students could potentially receive 12 credits for having their commercial driver’s license and being certified as a heavy equipment operator. Those credits would satisfy their elective requirements for an associate’s degree of applied science in highway maintenance management, he said.

Most employees responsible for maintaining roads and bridges already have those credentials, he said, and the program allows them to build up credit for related courses before taking additional courses to enhance their competitiveness in their field and their general education. A third of their coursework could be met by their industry experience.

“What we want to offer them is something that is either fresh or will help advance them further,” Spezza said.

Spezza said FRCC takes the local community’s needs into consideration when developing programs, with the benefits for students and the ways a program aligns to industry top of mind.

Industry plays a key role in helping the college ensure its programs stay current, he said.

Kami Welch, president of the Arvada Chamber of Commerce, continues to hear struggles to find a qualified workforce from her industry members — part of which she said is attributed to employees not having the soft and technical skills that are critical to the workplace.

The chamber supports the legislative push to create a statewide system that will better enable students to earn college credit for their time spent working.

“I believe this bill breaks down barriers associated with cost and access,” she said, “and it’s a step in the right direction to improve our local talent pipeline.”

Spezza also supports the legislation, cautiously.

Consistent guidelines would be helpful, he said, but they need to be flexible enough to allow communities to address their local needs.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...