559 students and family members converge on Ashland campus
for up-close look at the university and its tuition programs

Southern Oregon University's small class sizes and programs to ease the cost of tuition drew a record number to Preview Day, held Friday to give prospective students and their parents a chance to "kick the tires" before enrolling.

There were 220 students and 339 parents and family members who attended the daylong series of workshops and panel discussions designed to spotlight SOU programs, said spokesman Jim Beaver.

"Money is really on people's minds," Beaver said. "The (public universities) are getting a lot more attention than they have in the past."

Teenagers and their parents sat in on panel discussions with current SOU students, attended workshops on financial aid and scholarships, took tours of the campus and dormitories and spoke with professors in their prospective fields of study.

"It's very affordable and safe," said Nina Raymond of Portland, as her daughter Katherine browsed promotional literature and chatted with teachers in the Stevenson Union. "It's close to home and it has in-state tuition."

Raymond said the economy is "huge in our thinking."

"Parents have to think they're saving dollars. It's also cheaper to fly her home on holidays from here," said Raymond.

Admissions Director Mark Bottorff said SOU changed its marketing strategy in recent months from blanketing the region with a generic message to focusing on "the right message, for the right student at the right time" and aggressively promoting its financial advantages.

With tuition likely climbing to $125 a unit this fall — a 7.5 percent increase over this year for most students — SOU is offering a rebate of two units for students taking 16 units or more. The move will encourage students to get college behind them in four years, not five or six, thus being more kindly to their budgets, said Bottorff.

SOU has built up its work-study program so that 800 to 1,000 students now are able to make good pocket money on campus, he said. The university also offers Presidential and Laurel scholarships, based on academics, of up to $5,000 and a Provost Scholarship, based on need, of up to $1,000.

Parents and students on Friday said they were delighted with the smallness of the town, campus and class sizes, and they liked the area's recreational advantages.

"I like that it's small," said Karla Nielsen, a Lake Oswego mom who came to Preview Day with her daughter Keri. "We checked out OSU (Oregon State University) and it was huge. SOU is far enough away but still in-state, and Keri can get her being-on-my-own experience and also snowboarding nearby — and she's not just a number here."

"I like the small classes," said Keri, who will study psychology. "It's got a 22-to-1 student-faculty ratio. That's smaller than my high school.

"You don't get lost in the crowd and I can make work-study money."

David McClure of Hood River said his son, Spencer, was drawn to SOU by the manageable size of the school — and because SOU gave him two scholarships and a work study.

"I don't know if we'd have been able to do a four-year college without some help," he said.

High-schooler Kate Boles of Seattle, who has been working with a college counseling service for two years, said SOU kept turning up in the top tier "because of its great theater arts program and because they pay attention, not just to your GPA (grade-point average), but to what interests me, what I've done and what I want to do."

Her father, Bob Boles, said the family did not focus on costs and the economy so much as "what's the best fit."

High school seniors weren't the only ones getting a feel for the SOU campus Friday.

Angel Victoria Leonard, 39, of Medford, who recently was laid off from Mediation Works, said her degrees in education and divinity are turning out to be "not the most job-able," so she's entering SOU's nurse practitioner program.

"I've got to do something," Leonard said. "I feel very rattled. Getting laid off was a real reality check. Need is a big motivator."

Going back to college is a common response among adults in the work force who've been laid off or unable to find jobs, Bottorff said. College allows them to "ramp up their skills and prepare for higher earning in the field they want," he said.

Unemployment is significantly lower among workers with four-year degrees than those with two-year degrees or a high school education, he said.

Bottorff said he was pleased with Friday's turnout, the highest ever for Preview Day.

"The majority of people here are already admitted and are here to 'kick the tires' the final time," he said.

"We want to demonstrate to all interested students that going to college is affordable and that they should at least apply and complete an application so we can put together a financial package for them," he said. "We want to be on the kitchen table alongside the other applications and be able to show that their out-of-pocket expenses are going to be manageable."