By Barbara Christe, PhD

The phone conversation is repeated several times per month: A caller reaches out in desperate need for a bachelor’s degree, often in a one-year time frame, as a result of what is known as “credential creep,” or rising expectations of college degree attainment. In fact, managers who oversee multiple facilities with decades of experience increasingly face blocked promotions or diminished career opportunities without an undergraduate degree.

As a faculty member at the Ind.-based Purdue University, institutional flexibility is limited, and the phone calls typically do not end on a positive note. Even with recommendations of other college pathways, degree attainment in a short time frame can be challenging or impossible.

Like nurses, many HTM professionals feel pressure from employers, clinical sites, or colleagues to explore the attainment of a bachelor’s degree. The expectation of this academic credential has expanded in a similar way to that experienced by registered nurses—some hospitals have moved to require a bachelor’s degree.

With this in mind, HTM technicians and managers may wish to explore alternatives to degree attainment that are better matched with adults who are already employed in the field. Higher education has acknowledged this need for credentials earned by working adults, expanding the use of competency-based education (CBE) and prior learning assessment (PLA). Understanding these tools can document the knowledge attained in the workplace and dramatically reduce the time needed to earn a college degree.

Before these tools are discussed, HTM-professionals may need to acknowledge that institutions widely vary in their ability or desire to support non-traditional credit or degree attainment. Some schools do not wish to engage adult learners, or utilize CBE or PLA. Searching for the right institutional match can be critical to successful degree attainment.

Competency-Based Education 

The CBE approach to degree attainment utilizes statements of learner competency that are identified by faculty members and are grouped to comprise the knowledge needed to characterize a bachelor’s degree. The learning outcomes are then linked to measureable learning objectives that can reflect mastery of the competency.

CBE requires that institutions find purposeful ways to assess skills and calls for creative instructional tools to remediate gaps in knowledge, leveraging technology and nationally available materials as teaching aids. Pacing is determined by the student in this model of education, avoiding wasted time exploring concepts for which a student is already proficient.

CBE relies on carefully designed assessments, including tests, papers, and assignments that can be completed when the student feels competent in the subject area. When all necessary assessments are successfully completed, the bachelor’s degree is awarded. Tuition is often charged not by the credit hour but instead in six-month intervals. Institutions may use alternative labels in place of credit hours, using “competency units.”

Some colleges and universities specialize in CBE education—most prominently, Western Governors University (WGU), a public institution in Salt Lake City. This university offers a few degrees in narrow areas, including teaching, business, nursing, and information technology. Further, Southern New Hampshire University College for America also offers CBE degrees, including a bachelor of arts degree in healthcare management (not technology focused, however).

Both colleges are regionally accredited and are acknowledged as offering high quality educational opportunities. [Note: understanding the types of higher education accreditation can be critical in the process of exploring non-traditional college programs. You can find more about accreditation in an article I co-wrote with Steve Yelton and Mary Coker titled, “Understanding higher education accreditation: A guide for the HTM profession” (Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology. 2016;50(2), 103-108.)]

Prior Learning Assessment

PLA is the process that many colleges and universities utilize to affirm that students should not repeat coursework when the content is already understood. Institutions generally agree that PLA acknowledges the value of lifelong learning, connecting learning in the workplace and in life with course content attainment.

Generally, the PLA process links course outcomes with personal experiential learning. PLA documents learning that occurs when associated with professional credentials (CBET certification, for example), military service, and volunteer experiences. Documenting these activities in portfolios and reflective works, or through certifications and credential attainment, can establish course credit.

The American Council on Education has produced a guide for college credit recommendations for all branches of the military. Many institutions review the Joint Services Transcript to award credit toward college degrees. Furthermore, massive open online courses (MOOCs, such as through edX) offer learners the ability to acquire knowledge in non-traditional ways. Transferring the competencies acquired though MOOCs utilizing PLA can be a creative method to earn college credit.

The Big Three

Packing all these opportunities for establishing college credit into a degree is accomplished by a few unique colleges and universities that are collectively known as the “Big Three”: Albany, N.Y.-based Excelsior College, Trenton, N.J.-based Thomas Edison State University, and New Britain, Conn.-based Charter Oak State College. These unique, regionally accredited institutions offer degrees designed for adult learners to utilize PLA and a wide variety of other tools to establish credits to meet the degree requirements. Potential students are evaluated to identify gaps in coursework.

Learners are provided with recommendations for sources of study to fill the gaps, with some or all necessary coursework taken from other schools. For example, Thomas Edison State University, a public institution, offers a bachelor’s in biomedical electronics, which can be a flexible option compared to programs available in traditional institutions. Also, Excelsior College, a private college, offers some programs with specialized accreditation through the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc.

Setting aside the potential debate regarding the need for a college degree, adults who seek to earn one should not assume that all institutions operate the same way, offering curricular components with classroom “seat time” and requiring face-to-face full-time enrollment. Many well-regarded schools offer degrees with unique formats that may provide the opportunity for advancement and professional success.

Barbara Christe, PhD, is program director of healthcare engineering technology management and an associate professor in the Engineering Technology Department of the Purdue School of Engineering & Technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.