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SOU taps micro-credential market

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Koko Petitt, left, and Anne Bryan walk Tuesday through the Southern Oregon University campus.
School targeting mid-career learners, nontraditional students with focused, stackable certifications

It’s a tough world out there for postsecondary schools like Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College, whose reliance on state funding and tuition is undercut every biennium by the limitations of both.

This is not a local problem, nor is one of the many factors impacting SOU’s bottom line: enrollment. According to educationdata.org, which synthesizes data about the U.S. education system, college enrollment rates have declined by an average of 1.67% per year since 2010. In Oregon, college enrollment has declined 9.5% since 2010.

Like a business responding to fluctuations in the market, colleges across the country have scrambled to find ways to widen their customer base, and one of the relatively recent products of that push is quickly becoming a focus of SOU’s own outreach to prospective students: micro-credentials.

Branded by SOU “an academic movement that is transforming higher education,” micro-credentials can be thought of as miniature, tightly focused degrees — most of SOU’s require about 12 credit hours of coursework, or three classes, which can count toward a students’ degree requirements but may also stand alone to reflect a student’s skill set via a digital badge. Those badges can be shared through social media and electronic resumes, such as those found on LinkedIn.

SOU currently offers 17 micro-credentials in a wide range of programs, including cinema production technology, community planning, digital security, behavioral health, project management and values-based leadership, among others. And many more are on the way, according to SOU Associate Provost Jody Waters.

“I’m guessing I have another 10 to 15 either proposals or indications that we’ll get proposals (for new micro-credentials),” Waters said. “We wanted to be relatively conservative in this first half because we just didn’t know what it was going to look like, and we wanted to make sure that if we’re going to invest institutional resources in it that we would do so in kind of an iterative way so that we could learn and adjust as we went.”

If all the proposals that have been floated at SOU are vetted and approved, Waters estimates, by this time next year the school will be offering between 50 and 75 micro-credentials.

“It could be higher than that depending on how well students respond to them,” Waters said.

Much cheaper and less time-consuming than a traditional degree, micro-badges may be attractive to nontraditional students already in the workforce looking to give their resume a boost for a possible promotion, job hunt or career change. At least that’s what SOU, which in April announced another tuition increase, is hoping.

“Absolutely, we’re looking to what we refer to as non-degree-seeking students who are looking to gain additional competencies in certain areas for career reasons or for other reasons,” Waters said. “So I think that that’s a growing market. It’s unfortunate to think in these terms but … it’s a lucrative market.

“And for me, moreover, it’s more of an opportunity to serve the region, to serve the community. We know we have a lot of folks who want to get some education but don’t want a degree or can’t get a degree. In traditional higher education their options are really limited, but this really broadens the menu of what we can offer them, so it’s a great way to be responsive and less restrictive.”

Micro-credentials are being promoted by colleges and universities as “T-shaped educational experiences” — that is, the wide base of academic majors fused with the deeper-drilled concentrations. They’re also “stackable,” or combined with other micro-credentials and applied toward a broader major or minor.

To attain the values-based leadership micro-credential, for instance, students must complete a values-based leadership training workshop, a local innovation lab internship and at least one of 13 elective courses selected for that credential (gender issues in economics, for instance).

Economics program chair and associate professor Bret Anderson made the original proposal for SOU’s values-based leadership micro-credential. He said its first cohort numbered six, and they received their digital badges just a few weeks ago.

“It’s really a quality experience and kind of an intensive experience,” Anderson said. “We never expected this one to have the biggest numbers, but we’re going for the deepest experience. And another piece that’s relevant is how we intentionally structured it. It isn’t just to benefit existing students. You don’t have to be an SOU student to complete this. It could be a community member or adult learner.”

If SOU’s micro-credentials catch on with those groups, it could prove to be a valuable revenue source.

“Higher education’s really no longer the sort of slam dunk value adage proposition it once was,” Waters said. “Students are not automatically coming out of high school and walking into a degree. They’re not automatically assuming that that’s what they’re going to do. This is a way to break the degree apart into more manageable pieces that don’t feel like that really daunting, huge, expensive accomplishment but makes it more achievable and incremental.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.