Group Hopes to Map a Faster Path to College Completion

fm newBy Katherine Mangan

With on-time graduation rates hovering in the single digits in some of its member states, Complete College America on Wednesday will recommend that students step on the accelerator and colleges slam on the brakes when it comes to the credit hours needed to graduate.

The nonprofit group says that too many students languish in college for five or six years while taking the 12 credit hours per semester that the federal government defines as full time.

The organization is pushing states to redefine full time to give students more incentive to work at a pace that will allow them to accumulate 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree in four years, or 60 credit hours for an associate degree in two.

And it wants colleges to cap their requirements at those credit levels instead of succumbing to “credential creep” and demanding more courses than students can realistically finish in two or four years.

“Somehow, higher education has adopted this notion that 12 credit hours is full time,” the organization’s president, Stan Jones, said in an interview on Tuesday.

Even though many students enter college with credits earned in dual-enrollment or Advanced Placement courses, he said, “when students start with 12 credit hours per semester, they’re already on the five-year plan.”

Students typically take more courses than they need to graduate, in part because of poor advising, courses that don’t transfer, and shifts in their majors, Mr. Jones said. On average, students in associate-degree programs end up with 80 credit hours and those in bachelor’s-degree programs with 136, he said.

Abysmal Numbers

Such inefficiencies have contributed to abysmal on-time completion numbers, the group argues. For students seeking four-year degrees at nonflagship universities, the overall rate is 19 percent, and for those seeking two-year degrees, it’s 4 percent.

When Complete College America surveyed the 34 members of its “Alliance of States” about their on-time completion numbers, some of the results were sobering.

Like the federal government, the group counted only full-time, first-time students who graduate from the same college they entered. And it defined on-time graduation as within two years for an associate degree and four for a bachelor’s degree.

Using those definitions, which exclude many part-time and transfer students, Maryland had some of the highest completion totals at four-year colleges, with 67 percent of students graduating from flagship universities on time and 38 percent of students at nonflagship universities doing so. For flagship universities, Connecticut was next at 58 percent, followed by Wisconsin at 52 percent.

Among two-year colleges, the highest percentages were in Utah, at 21 percent (partly because of a recent proliferation of early-college high schools, where students earn college credit); Wyoming, at 14 percent; and Wisconsin and Mississippi, both at 12 percent.

On the low end, for four-year flagships, Nevada had 16 percent graduating on time and Hawaii 19 percent. For associate-degree programs, Nevada and Louisiana had 2 percent, while a handful of states graduated just 3 percent on time.

’15 to Finish’

David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, agreed that students who enrolled in more courses should graduate faster. “But it is also clear that not all students are in a position to take 15 credits each term, whether that be due to work and family commitments, level of academic preparation, or, in some cases, course availability,” he said in a written statement.

While acknowledging that some students can’t handle that many courses, Complete College America has been urging states to replicate Hawaii’s “15 to Finish” campaign. The University of Hawaii system reports that retention rates for freshmen who take 15 credit hours per semester are 22 percent higher than those of students taking less-intense schedules.

The nonprofit organization is also pushing more states to institute a flat tuition rate for 12 or more credit hours so that students have a financial incentive to take a full load. (Pell Grants are capped for students taking 12 or more credit hours, so students who take three extra credits don’t receive more federal aid.)

Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said degree requirements are creeping up as new courses are added and colleges are reluctant to drop existing ones.

“We talk about two-year and four-year degrees,” he said, “so it seems we should reassess program requirements to make sure you can actually finish in that amount of time.”

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