Despite Years of Credits, Still No Degree

Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle

April 11, 2010

How do you earn six years of college credit yet fail to acquire a four-year degree? Much to her consternation, Sharon Miller has spent more than a decade finding out. She's sure she's not the only one.

Sharon was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. She graduated from high school in 1998 and immediately enrolled at Cedarville College (now Cedarville University), in the southwest part of the state. She'd considered going right to work, but her father had failed to finish his degree many years before and didn't want his daughter making the same mistake. He insisted, as fathers do, and off she went.

Although Sharon's grades were good, when she went home during her sophomore year for Christmas in 1999, she still didn't know what she wanted to learn. The tuition at her private college seemed like a waste, so she dropped out and took a full-time job that soon turned into a paralegal position. But she couldn't shake her father's admonitions. She enrolled at the University of Akron, at night, while working full time.

Sharon eventually earned a two-year degree at Akron—not that she thought much of the experience. Everything she learned in class about being a paralegal she had already learned by actually being a paralegal. But she had felt vulnerable without the credential, so the reassurance had a kind of value in itself.

Six years passed. In 2008, Sharon found herself looking for a new job. She was well beyond clerical work in her skills and aspirations. She sent out 50 applications and got two interviews. It was obvious to her that, without a bachelor's degree, she had reached the end of the economic line. She enrolled at nearby Kent State University. It was a familiar predicament for the Millers—after years working for Chrysler, her father was told he needed a B.A. to qualify for a promotion. He had enrolled at Kent State, too.

Sharon didn't expect to be at Kent State long—she had three semesters at Cedarville under her belt, plus the degree from Akron. That seemed awfully close to four years.

But the process of transferring those credits to Kent State quickly turned into a maze. In theory there were advisers to help. But Sharon had a full-time job, and the advising office was open only during the day. She tried to go on her lunch hour, but they were closed for lunch. She sent e-mail messages and left voice mails but most were never returned.

So she took to analyzing her transcript on her own. It didn't make much sense. Some courses had been accepted for transfer, but many had not. She had taken several classes at Cedarville, a Baptist university, with the word "Christian" or "Bible" in the course name. None of those were accepted. Neither were the vast majority of credits from Akron. In total, she had earned 70 college credits—over two years' worth—that had disappeared as if they had never been.

As Sharon stared at the spreadsheet, her eyes fell on three courses she had taken at Akron that Kent State had classified as 300-level, or upper-division. Kent State required graduates to earn at least 42 upper-division credits. But it wasn't counting those three Akron courses toward her total. The problem, it seems, was that Akron had given them a 200-level designation. Sharon asked why Kent State's designation wasn't good enough for Kent State, and was shuffled from office to office until she eventually found herself sitting nervously across a desk from a dean. She had spent weeks preparing a portfolio of course materials and syllabi to justify why she deserved credit. The dean didn't give them a glance. It's state policy, he said; there was nothing he could do.

Sharon returned home and pulled up the Ohio Board of Regents Web site on her computer. It was not state policy. "A receiving university may determine that a community or technical college course is equivalent in nature and content to an upper division university course," it said. Kent State was allowed to accept the credits—it just didn't want to.

Kent State wouldn't accept credits that it deemed upper-division as upper-division because someone else had deemed them lower-division. But it was perfectly willing to give Sharon three upper-division credits for a "Writing Seminar" that consisted of writing press releases for a church camp. And it promised her 15 upper-division credits for spending a semester interning at a research organization in Washington. The organization is not an accredited college or university. Nobody from Kent State has ever contacted it to ask anything about who works there or what, exactly, Sharon Miller is doing. I know this because the think tank employs me as its policy director. Kent State appears to have no problem letting Sharon write tuition checks for credit when the experience in question involves little or no cost or work on the part of Kent State.

Bad news continued to trickle in. Six months after enrolling, the advising office notified her that one of her old courses would count for a social-sciences distribution requirement. She had already taken a Kent State course for that requirement. Three more credits down the drain. But Sharon forged ahead and packed for her D.C. internship thinking she would finally earn her diploma in August 2010.

But the day before she left, a new wrinkle developed. Kent State requires students getting an arts-and-science degree to become moderately proficient in a foreign language. Sharon took Spanish I and hated it—the instruction was low-level and poor. She has a gift for language and scored in the 99th percentile on the English ACT. So she withdrew from Spanish II and decided to learn it on her own and test out of the foreign-language requirement. She scheduled an appointment at the testing center, which promptly informed her that, having withdrawn from Spanish II, she was no longer allowed to test out. This came as news to Sharon. And her adviser. And her Spanish teacher, who had told Sharon that testing out was perfectly fine.

Now Sharon has to take Spanish II, III, and IV, consecutively, over the next three semesters. Because the job market doesn't pay much for people without college credentials, Sharon has to take out student loans. But you can't take out a government loan for one course per semester. So Sharon will pick up a minor in political science, and earn another 22 credits above the 175 she already has. It will cost her thousands of dollars and delay graduation by a year, all so she can learn enough Spanish to order dinner or read a middle-school textbook in Guadalajara, neither of which she wants to do.

Some people see stories like Sharon's as an example of credentialism run amok, evidence that too many people are going to college. But the problem isn't that Sharon didn't need to learn anything after leaving high school. She did, and she needed the credentials to prove it. The problem is that our postsecondary system is phenomenally wasteful, inflexible, and inefficient in the way it awards and exchanges higher-education currency (credits) and turns that currency into assets (degrees).

In a better world, Sharon would be able to turn credits into credentials through a combination of course-taking and test-taking centered on verifiable evidence of what she has actually learned, not how long she was taught.

Unfortunately, many of the for-profit businesses that specialize in awarding credit for learning that happens outside of colleges courses seem to advertise via e-mail messages that end up in your spam filter alongside pitches for "male enhancement." The traditional nonprofit institutions that award socially acceptable credit, by contrast, are in the business of selling college courses for large and growing amounts of money. What's missing are public-minded organizations that have the credibility and financial incentives to award credit based on rigorous standards of evidence.

Accreditation ought to help. Yet Cedarville, Akron, and Kent State are all fully approved by the same regional accreditor, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and still Sharon will end up exchanging more than six years of credit for a four-year degree. She will not be refunded the difference.

More than half of college students earn credit from multiple institutions. As students' learning options continue to diversify, that number will surely grow. Given the huge amount of public and private money being spent on getting students into college, and the growing urgency of helping more earn degrees, reducing vast credit wastage should be a top priority.

Yet incredibly, no definitive study of this problem has ever been conducted. Congress required such research in 1998, but the U.S. Department of Education has yet to follow through. Quantifying the problem would be a welcome first step in helping Sharon's long and frustrating journey become a thing of the past.

In the meantime, she'd like to start a nonprofit advocacy group for fellow students. "I know there are thousands of students like me," she says, "and there is nowhere else for them to go."

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.