By Graig Graziosi
While not a new concept, credits awarded for the education students have received outside of a college setting is set to expand during the 2015-2016 Youngstown State University school year.
Prior learning assessment, as it has been dubbed, centers on awarding credits to students — primarily nontraditional students transferring in from previous careers — for the education and experience they have gained during their pre-college lives.
Following a 2013 Ohio state initiative, “PLA With a Purpose,” universities across Ohio have been tasked with incorporating strategies for PLA expansion and consistency among academic departments, with YSU being no exception.
Tammy King, associate dean of the Bitonte College of Health and Human Services and member of the committee overseeing PLA implementation at YSU, believes that learning should be rewarded regardless of the circumstances surrounding the education.
“You know, learning can occur through volunteer work, opening your own business, training you have on the job, learning that results from life experiences … what this initiative is aiming to do is to promote consistency among the colleges and departments within YSU for awarding credit for these alternative learning situations,” King said.
The issue of consistency has been a hurdle for those in support of PLA credits, with critics of the program citing the subjectivity of awarding credit based on an idea as enormous and complex as education through life experience.
Hoping to combat this fear of subjectivity and inconsistency, the PLA committee at YSU has focused on three potential working groups from which student learning can be assessed. The groups would require specific review requirements according to the type of learning accomplished by the group.
The three target groups — consisting of students opting to show their education through completing an exam, students showing their education through a portfolio of work and students receiving credit for their military training — would be examined by faculty members in the field relevant to the credits the students hope to obtain. Each department would be responsible for assessing students’ prior learning.
“Most universities do give some form of prior learning assessment,” King said. “The goal here is to standardize it so it’s fair across the disciplines.”
The push for PLA in the Ohio higher education system is, in part, a response to the decline in Ohioans who hold a college degree. In 2013, Ohio was ranked 33rd in the nation for number of citizens with college degrees. The “PLA With a Purpose” initiative, according to the Ohio Board of Regents, is intended to boost Ohio’s competitiveness globally through helping more students attain degrees.
There is no attempt to hide the fact that the PLA initiatives will be aimed more towards nontraditional students, as they are most likely to have relevant education through life experiences. King believes the changing demographics of the nation factor into YSU’s interest in attracting adult students.
“We’re [in Ohio] falling behind on people with college degrees, and as less people are having babies, that means less traditional students on the horizon, so we really need to reach out to our adult learners and get them back into university life,” King said.
Alongside career-minded adults looking to further their education, those individuals leaving military service with intentions to use their GI Bill to earn a college degree are a sought after demographic by universities across the state. In offering more consideration for military training to transfer into credit hours, the PLA committee hopes to see a rise in enrollment of military members.
Rick Williams, coordinator of the Office of Veterans Affairs and a member of the PLA committee, is an ardent supporter of greater credit awards for those with significant time serving in the military.
“I have very strong feelings about PLA credit for military members,” Williams said. “Right now, as it stands, if a military member comes to YSU, they could have 10 years worth of experience and schooling through the military and they might get 2 classes for it, such as a phys ed class and a healthy lifestyles class, which is a travesty for military members.”
Misrepresentation of a service person’s skills and education are not the only risks present if YSU were to continue on its current course of military training assessment. Veterans who don’t feel a university will appropriately acknowledge the value of their training will likely opt to pursue their education elsewhere.
“I am pushing for more credit. We take pride in our military friendly designation, but we need to take this opportunity to really prove it or we’re going to be left behind by other universities in the area. Veteran students shop around — they aren’t stupid,” Williams said. “They’ll look at Akron and Kent State and Cleveland State and look for which school offers the most credit for their military training and that’s where they’ll go. It’s very important that YSU take a hard look at the credit we award military members and that we draw up a policy that awards fair and equitable credit for their military training.”
While no changes to the current PLA practices have yet been implemented, King is confident that the new initiatives will be in effect at YSU by fall 2015.
“The state doesn’t goof around, they want things done. We really need to have our plan up and running by the start of the fall 2015 semester at the latest. So, by spring, we’ve got to debate the initiative and make sure we’re all on the right page,” King said. “We’ve got a lot of work, but we’re going to find a way to make it work. We’ve got brilliant faculty and we’re going to figure out how to make this work.”