Prior Learning Program aims to help students graduate early

Experienced students looking to obtain their degree sooner can do that just with the Prior Learning Program at Central Michigan University. 

Program Director Albert Zainea said it was created for students who have experience outside their college academic program. 

Experiences can include, but are not limited to, jobs, internships, training or community service. These could possibly translate to university credit if they showcase experience and knowledge gained in their respective major. 

Anyone can take advantage of the program but it mainly targets older adults who have previous work experience and have come back to school to finish their degrees.

“Some of those students have been working for the last seven years in some capacity of leadership," said Zainea. "Based on that, they can get some (university) credit for their experiences."

Any student who feels they have experience related to their major can make a portfolio and submit it to the Prior Learning Office, which is located in room 421n in the Education and Human Services Building. 

A one time fee of $125 is required to submit a portfolio. 

During this part of the process, students also need to fill out competency forms that relate to the specific experiences they've have. These competencies include, but are not limited to, "training," "sales" and "data entry." The full list can be found on the program's homepage.

From there a team of CMU faculty members from various departments will analyze the portfolio to determine which experiences could count as university credit. 

According to Zainea, there are various factors that determine whether the experience can be substituted for credit. For instance, students can't use university or academic programs as experience, since they would have already earned credit for it. However, an internship could be used as credit if it had not yet been credited towards a program or major.

The Prior Learning Team also considers how much time an individual spent with each of their experiences and how the individual has developed their skills from those experiences.

If the team decides that the experiences meet certain goals of a major, minor or elective, they will then decide how many credits they're worth. However, the program can’t replace general education or competencies for a degree, or required classes for their degree.

Credits are awarded for the competencies the student signed up for. The credits are then given to the student's academic adviser, who then determines what credits can be used for certain classes. This allows students to bypass certain classes so they can get their degree quicker.

“I like the fact that I can base things off of my real-world experiences that directly apply (to my major),” said Eric Bellmore, a former student who earned nine graduate credits from the program.

A single student can earn up to 60 undergraduate credits and 10 graduate credits. Each Prior Learning credit is $95, which would save students a large sum of money and time from the classes they no longer have to take. Students are only charged for what credits they use. In price comparison, CMU's 2018-19 tuition price is $417 per credit hour. 

Bellmore was aiming for a Master of Science in Administration and felt that he already gained the knowledge from his work in the field.

“One of the courses I was given credit for, I probably could’ve taught the class,” Bellmore said.

He used his 25 years of working in the information technology and project management fields to build his portfolio and finish his graduate program. Overall he said that this program saved him two semesters of graduate school.

Sheila Roupe also used the program to get her degree, earning 37 undergraduate credits. She used non-credit, leadership programs under CMU to gain her credit towards her degree.

"(The program) saved me about three semesters," Roupe said. 

One of the key things for a student getting these credits is their portfolio. A good portfolio will set a good path for possible credits. The portfolio should contain documented experiences – proof that the student participated in these experiences. These could include performance evaluations or letters of recommendation.

The portfolio should also contain a research-style paper that explains what and how the student learned from their experiences. 

“The biggest thing is not telling us what you have done but writing about it in a way that’s connecting the learning with the experience,” said Zainea.

The program has a zero tolerance for plagiarism and falsifying of information. If these are discovered, the student’s portfolio is thrown away and they are terminated from the program. They will also be referred to the Office of Student Conduct.