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2013 June 24 - 12:00 am

POV: Excess Credit Hours Are Symptom, Not Cause, of Poor Completion Rates

POINT OF VIEW:
Excess Credit Hours Are Symptom, Not Cause, of Poor Completion Rates
Matthew Zeidenberg,
Senior Research Associate, Community College Research Center
Teachers College, Columbia University

There is growing concern among policymakers that “excess” college credits — credits accrued by students that exceed the number necessary for a credential — are contributing to spiraling college costs and stagnant completion rates.

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There is certainly ample evidence that community college students take many more credits than are necessary to complete. A 2012 Complete College America report estimated that the average associate degree completer accrues significantly more credits than required for the credential. I found a similar pattern in my recent study of one state’s community college system. The average student who earned an associate degree in this system took 12 percent more credits than required, at an annual cost to the system of $6 million dollars. While variation in expenditures on excess credits across systems makes it difficult to arrive at a national estimate, the cost for taxpayers and students is clearly high.

Perhaps of greatest concern for the community college sector are the excess credits that do not transfer to four-year institutions. We know that students often report frustration about taking courses they later find out will not transfer. The lack of clear articulation agreements between two- and four-year public institutions, and the confusion this poses to students on the transfer track, may be one of the greatest culprits in community college students’ accumulation of excess credits; one that may carry substantial costs for taxpayers.

The Complete College America report recommends enacting caps that limit students’ number of credit hours. Several states already have such caps and many more are considering them. However, policies limiting students’ credits hours could have significant unintended consequences — including, but not limited to, decreasing completion rates. As the system currently functions, excess credits may serve important educational purposes: Students may need to experiment to gain clarity about academic and career goals; they may be taking courses that deepen their knowledge or improve their skills more generally; and there may be labor market returns to more credits independent of a credential. On the other hand, students may accrue excess credits for less positive reasons. They may lack information about the correct courses to take to complete a program of study, or they may accumulate excess credits when their required classes aren’t available, thus forcing them to enroll in “extraneous” courses that allow them to maintain full-time status for financial aid.

Rather than limit how many credits students can take, a better approach may be to adopt changes that minimize decisions that result in excess credits en route to a degree. For example, community college students often lack peer networks that can provide information about correct courses to take to complete their credential. For these students, good advising could help fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Indeed, research supports the idea that devoting more resources to advising can boost completion, especially at colleges with low completion rates. However, many community colleges have extremely high student to counselor ratios, sometimes as high as 1,500 to 1.

Colleges are unlikely to hire more advisors in the current budget climate, but they can allocate resources more strategically to help assure that each student receives the help they need to enter a program of study, enroll in courses that contribute to program completion, and — for transfer students — select a target transfer institution. This more strategic approach would direct undecided students to intensive one-on-one academic and career counseling. Students with clear goals could be directed towards “light-touch” advising, such as student success courses, or well-designed e-advising that automatically and continuously compares the courses a student has selected with the requirements of their selected program.

Such a system could electronically track every student and contact them via email if they register for courses that do not advance them in their declared program or will not transfer to their target institution, and offer alternative registration options that would satisfy these goals. For-profit colleges already engage in such extensive tracking. Most community colleges do not have IT systems that are currently configured to perform such functions, but investments in such systems would pay off in the long term.

Creating strong articulation agreements with four-year institutions that guarantee transfer of credits, and effectively communicating the content of these agreements to students, could also significantly reduce excess credits.Finally, encouraging entering students to enroll in “pre-majors” or “program streams,” and defining the courses required in each stream, could facilitate transfer and give colleges a better sense of how many sections of each course they need to offer, lessening the likelihood that financial aid students will need to enroll in extraneous courses.

We can’t expect to reduce excess credits to zero; nor would it be desirable. Student choice implies the possibility of not always staying on the straight and narrow, and this is not altogether a bad thing, as we have seen, since some of these excess credits may serve an educational purpose. The excess credits that are worth eliminating are more likely a symptom of institutional deficiencies than the actual cause of lackluster college completion rates. Insufficient advising, poorly defined programs, and lack of cooperation between two and four-year colleges are larger problems. If colleges are given the support and incentives to address these problems, we may find that the symptom of those excess credits that serve no useful purpose will largely resolve itself.

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