Strategies to Decrease Time to Degree

Jan 11, 2012 by

“At some point, additional time for students to complete a college degree has diminishing returns and becomes a negative factor,” Stan Jones, president of Complete College America (CCA), explained during a recent meeting. CCA’s report, Time is the Enemy, noted that giving full-time community college students an extra year to finish a degree and giving full-time four-year students an extra two years to earn a degree only increases graduation rates by 4.9% for both groups. Consequently, state leaders should encourage postsecondary education institutions to develop strategies that will reduce the amount of time students take to earn a credential.

A small group discussion with legislators at the Boosting College Completion Legislative Workshop in December, 2011 provided new insights on how state lawmakers might work with postsecondary institutions to decrease the time and number of credits students require to earn a credential.  The discussion, which was facilitated by Stan Jones and Nate Johnson, senior consultant, HCM Strategists focused on the following strategies:

Report on time-to-degree for all students, including part- and full-time and at all institutions
Stan Jones encouraged state lawmakers to collect time-to-degree data for part-time, minority and low-income students to capture a more comprehensive picture of the college completion landscape. Nate Johnson added that it might be useful to distinguish the reasons for extended time to degree, including failed courses, changing majors or institutional transfers.

Unlike federal data that tracks only first-time, full-time students, the Complete College America report took a stab at determining how part-timers are faring with their college completion plans. Not very well, it concluded. For example, 18.8% of full-time students complete a two-year associate degree within four years, while only 7.8% of part-timers do. And 60.6% of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree within eight years, but only 24.3% of part-time students reach this goal.

Audit and limit credit requirements at two- and four-year institutions
States and institutions should conduct a review of credit requirements for all programs at all institutions and move toward a standard of 120 credits for bachelor’s degrees and 60 for associate degrees, according to Nate Johnson. California, Florida and Wisconsin are three states that have taken a lead to reduce credit requirements, which can decrease time to degree and also open up enrollment slots for additional students. Nate commented that revising credit requirements is one policy area that state legislators often have the authority to influence.

Encourage or require all institutions to develop degree program maps for students
Students often spend valuable time and money on courses that ultimately do not fulfill the requirements in their chosen program of study and undermine their ability to earn a degree. Colleges contribute to the problem by embracing an attitude that increasing choice is good – an approach that often complicates students’ ability to earn a credential.  For example, course catalogs provide an overwhelming number of options for students, rarely providing clarity on how the classes will help students meet their academic goals. Institutions, therefore, should develop program roadmaps that indicate and chart out what courses are necessary to complete degrees in two or four years, and by semester, if possible. Essentially, these maps could serve as graduation plans that could be developed between students and their advisors. Such plans are particularly helpful when students switch programs or majors, or intend to transfer.

Adopt agreements that guarantee the transfer of the general education curriculum
With an increasing number of students attending multiple institutions, removing barriers to transferring credits is another high-leverage policy to improve degree completion rates. At a minimum, states and postsecondary systems should consider guaranteeing the transfer of the general education curriculum. Some policies offer this guarantee after students have completed an associate degree or the general education core. And some states, including Iowa, encourage two- and four-year faculty to meet on a regular basis to address concerns over the quality of community college instruction and coursework.

Reducing students’ time to degree is essential as state and postsecondary leaders work toward increasing college completion rates, reducing student debt load, setting specific attainment rates and meeting workforce demands.

For a good summary of the strategies and state examples mentioned above, check out Nate Johnson’s paper, Three Policies to Reduce Time to Degree, which was published by Complete College America.

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