SOU receives grant to boost 'prior learning' credits program

Dec. 28—For several years, Southern Oregon University has allowed students to make the case that what they already know should earn them credits toward graduation without having to take every single class.

But this past fall, the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which provides some but not total oversight of the state's colleges and universities, awarded a one-time $338,000 grant to SOU to expand the minimally used "prior learning" credits program to any major. The announcement of the grant came in the form of an SOU news release right before the holiday weekend.

"The state's goal was that we expand," said Moneeka Settles, coordinator for the Innovation and Leadership program, which in 2015 became the first program to award prior learning credits. "We're thrilled."

"The award to SOU is an acknowledgment of their commitment to add staff and train faculty to expand the use of credit for prior learning to additional courses and degree programs where students are currently unable to claim their prior experience," said Jennifer Purcell, director for Future Ready Oregon, a state investment package of $200 million managed through HECC.

Ten million of those dollars, provided by the Legislature earlier this year, granted money to 14 community colleges and five public universities to expand efforts to award students with academic credit for "significant life experience."

The SOU news release stated prior learning credits were already offered in business, communication and media and cinema before expanding university-wide.

"Our expansion would be to increase the number of courses that can be accessed to the portfolio submissions," Settles said.

She was referencing one of the ways in which students can earn prior learning credits (the portfolios are assessed on a pass or no-pass basis by faculty members). However, students can also earn these types of credit through challenge exams or by providing proof of military service.

Whatever the case, Settles believes the notion of students earning course credits for what they've already learned, oftentimes outside academia, is exciting to them.

"If a student comes, and we say, 'Sure, we set credits for higher learning,' they get excited about that — as they should," Settles said. "They come to us with a lot of wisdom and knowledge. They've either learned quite a bit on the job or gotten certificates."

Settles noted the process by which SOU awards prior learning credits to students is not relaxed at all.

"Sometimes people come, and they think, 'Oh, that's great. I'll just show my resume to you, and you'll see that I've done amazing things and estimate that it's 15 credits,'" she said. "No school does that. We're very thoughtful about our processes. Does it really match what you would have gotten at our school?"

Settles believes that over time, prior learning credits being offered more broadly will have a definite impact on students.

"It will attract students to come and complete their degree — students who might not otherwise be motivated to do that," Settles said. "For some students, I think it's a little bit discouraging to think, 'Oh, I have a lot of knowledge already, and any university might want me to start over and be a freshman again.'"

"To have a school say to you, 'No, we recognize that you've learned something on your own, and we are ready to honor that knowledge,' then ... this can be a motivator (for students)," Settles said.

In order to have more students obtaining prior learning credits, SOU will spend more resources advertising such a program exists. Those efforts could develop into a wider social media presence or even a website.

"That's exactly why we're excited to have the grant money — students don't know about this," Settles said. "We don't advertise it very well. And we need to build up our program so we have something to advertise."

She is confident that by the end of the current academic year, "we will have a much more robust program."

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.