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Develop Lower-Cost Pathways to Credentials

Develop lower-cost pathways to credentials, including accelerated (three-year bachelor’s and one-year associate) degree programs


Many states have outlined ambitious goals to increase the number of Americans with workforce-ready postsecondary certificates and degrees. Unfortunately, the cost of higher education continues to rise, putting a postsecondary credential out of reach for many Americans. In addition, according to Complete College America’s Time is the Enemy report, too many students are taking excessive credits and extending the time needed to graduate. Both factors increase students’ chances of stopping out and accumulating debt. To meet national and statewide attainment goals, policy leaders can support lower-cost, flexible degree pathways, such as three-year bachelor’s degree and one-year associate degree programs and dual or concurrent enrollment programs. State leaders also are beginning to authorize and institutions are using a combination of online and competency-based formats, which can help accelerate student progression and reduce time-to-degree at a significantly lower cost. Dual and concurrent enrollment programs allow high school students to earn college credits, and some allow students to earn an associate degree by the time they graduate high school.


Emerging research indicates that many of these lower-cost pathways to credentials can shorten time- and credits-to-degree and support increased college going and completion.

A 2014 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 55.1 percent of students enrolled for the first time in all public and private degree-granting institutions in fall 2008 graduated within six years. Students are taking too long to complete their degrees—a costly endeavor that wastes the limited resources of students, families and taxpayers. Research shows that the longer it takes students to earn a degree, the more pitfalls and hurdles they will encounter, making it less likely that they will make progress toward completion.

An HCM Strategists report on Maximizing Student Resources to Reduce Time- and Credits-to-Degree examined research on underlying factors that prevent students from graduating on time. According to the report, among the factors that correlate with increased time-to-degree are student choices, which the report calls demand-side factors, and institutional qualities and programs, which it calls supply-side factors. Student choices that impact time-to-degree include decisions about employment, course loads and student performance, transition among majors, and use of academic advising. Institutional factors include college structures and procedures, such as course availability, excessive course requirements, and remedial course requirements that delay entry to a program of study. The report also identifies strategies institutions can use to support better student choices and improve institutional programs and qualities to reduce time- and credits-to-degree.

In 2009, MDRC began an evaluation of the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which started enrolling students in 2007. The three-campus evaluation focused on low-income students identified by CUNY assessment tests as needing at least one developmental course. The 2015 evaluation report presents the findings from the full three-year evaluation, concluding that ASAP significantly improved student progression through programs of study and almost doubled their graduation rates. Students earned more credits during the three-year period and the cost-per-degree was significantly lower. ASAP requires full-time enrollment, encourages students to complete their remedial coursework early in the program, and encourages students to graduate within three years. The program offers significant student support, blocked courses in the first year, and a tuition waiver to cover the difference between the financial aid awarded and the cost of tuition and fees.

A 2014 report from Jobs for the Future (JFF) documents the success of JFF’s Early College High Schools Initiative, which began in 2002 to support high school graduation and college readiness among minority and low-income students. Early college students are more likely to graduate from high school and earn college credits while in high school than their peers. In addition, nearly one-third of early college students earn an associate degree or other postsecondary credential while still in high school. Almost three-fourths of early college graduates enroll in postsecondary education, compared to 54 percent of low-income high school graduates nationwide. Early college graduates are also more likely to return for a second year, and they are less likely to require remedial courses.

Early college high schools offer students an opportunity to take college-level courses and earn college credit during high school, with the possibility of simultaneously earning a high school diploma and an associate degree.

Data published by the Utah System of Higher Education document the positive impact of concurrent enrollment in that state. About one-third of Utah’s high school juniors and seniors were concurrently enrolled in high school and college courses during the 2013-2014 school year. Participating students were more than three times as likely to attend college within four years as those who did not participate, and participating low-income students were twice as likely to attend college as their peers who did not engage in concurrent enrollment. However, participation among low-income students is lagging. While half of all Utah high school seniors participate in concurrent enrollment courses, only 36 percent of low-income seniors participate. Students who completed between one and three college courses reduced the time needed to graduate by an average of almost two semesters. In 2013-2014, students earned a total 187,680 credits, which would have cost them more than $29 million in total tuition, generating a savings of between $1,300 and $13,500 per student.

State Examples

Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.


Arizona’s 3+1 or “90/30” model allows students to complete three years of college-level work at a community college, and finish their bachelor’s degree at a university campus during the fourth year. The model is a huge cost-saver for students, as they pay the higher university tuition and associated costs for only one year. Currently, there are select 3+1 programs available that target high-demand majors such as those in the health professions. The design/availability of the program is specific to the partnering university and community college. Among the participating partnerships are: Chandler-Gilbert Community College and Northern Arizona University, Mesa Community College and Northern Arizona University and Maricopa Community Colleges and Northern Arizona University.


California lawmakers enacted SB 850 in 2014, creating a pilot program that allows up to 15 community colleges to each establish one bachelor’s degree program that is not currently offered at University of California or California State University institutions and address unmet state workforce needs. The program is devised to help produce more degrees in high-demand fields that are only currently available at private or for-profit institutions, which are more costly for students. The legislation authorizes community colleges to charge standard fees for lower-division courses and an additional fee of $84 per unit for upper division courses in the pilot baccalaureate programs. The programs will begin operating in the 2017-2018 school year, and participating students must complete the program by the end of the 2022-2023 school year. The pilot program sunsets in 2023. The bill also directs the Legislative Analyst’s Office to conduct an interim and final evaluation of the program that includes program costs and funding sources, financial aid offered, time-to-degree and completion rates, the impact on underprepared and underserved students, and recommendations on whether and how the program could be extended and expanded.


In 2013, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education released Degree Map Guidance for Indiana’s Public Colleges and Universities. Legislation enacted earlier that year required state institutions to provide each student enrolling after July 31, 2014 with a degree map based on the student’s specific educational objective or course of study. Institutions are tasked with ensuring that the courses specified in the degree maps are available during the term specified in the degree maps. If an institution is unable to make a course available as specified in student degree maps, the course would be provided free of charge during the next academic term. According to the Commission, degree maps are part of a more comprehensive strategy to help students complete degree programs on time and at a lower cost.

The state’s community college system—Ivy Tech Community College—has introduced a one-year Associate Accelerated Program (known as ASAP) that helps students transition seamlessly from high school to college at a reduced cost. The delivery model incorporates block scheduling and cohort groups, as well as a variety of student supports to maximize student success and reduce time-to-degree. The program targets low-income, Pell-eligible students.


In 2012, Missouri launched the Innovation Campus initiative, which was developed as a lower-cost, streamlined pathway from high school to college and the workforce. The Innovation Campus model establishes partnerships between K-12 districts, community colleges and area businesses to help students earn degrees in high-demand STEM fields. Led by the University of Central Missouri, the program allows juniors and seniors to earn enough college credit while still in high school to graduate with an associate degree. Students can then finish their bachelor’s degree in two years. Students participate in paid internships with local businesses, which are designed to help students leave the program with little to no student debt. Later in 2012, Governor Jay Nixon announced $9 million in Community Development Block Grant awards to support the Missouri Innovation Campus at the University of Central Missouri and to establish eight additional innovation campuses across the state. In 2013, the governor signed SB 381 into law, officially defining an Innovation Campus in state statute and authorizing appropriations for an Innovation Campus fund to further support the development of innovation campuses.


In 2014, Ohio lawmakers enacted HB 487, which replaces the state’s Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program with the College Credit Plus (CCP) program that takes effect in the 2015-2016 school year. CCP expands access to college courses for high school students by including all public high schools, making qualified 7th– and 8th-grade students eligible, and making courses available at all public (and some private) colleges and universities. CCP also improves on PSEO by making more courses available, calling for more communication with students and families about the opportunities and benefits of CCP, and making policies more consistent and transparent statewide. Students apply for admission to CCP at a participating institution and demonstrate college readiness in the areas in which they wish to take courses. Participating students earn high school and college credits upon successful completion of CCP courses, and credits earned apply toward a degree or professional certificate. Public high schools are developing pathways for students to earn 15 or 30 transcripted credits. Pathways are organized by major or career path and include core courses required for a degree or professional certification. Students taking their courses through public colleges or who are economically disadvantaged cannot be charged for tuition, textbooks or fees.

Rhode Island

In 2013, Rhode Island lawmakers enacted legislation calling for the development of a dual enrollment program—Prepare Rhode Island—that would allow high school students to take college courses and earn both high school and college credit, ultimately saving students both time and money. The Rhode Island Board of Education released regulations governing the program in April 2015.  High school students can earn college credits by taking concurrent enrollment courses offered and taught at high schools or by dually enrolling in regular college courses offered on a college campus.  Credits are transferable among the state’s public institutions. In July 2015 lawmakers enacted a 2016 budget that included the $1.3 million requested by the governor to fund the program so that students can earn dual enrollment credits at no expense to them and their families.

Western Governors University

Western Governors University (WGU) is a fully online, competency-based university founded in 1996 to provide lower-cost, flexible degree pathways. The WGU model rewards students for demonstrated competencies, rather than completed credit hours. Students work through the program at their own pace. The university charges a flat tuition rate regardless of the number of courses attempted, providing an incentive for students to progress quickly to degree completion. WGU has not increased tuition since 2008; the full-time tuition of about $6,000 per year is lower than the national average for in-state tuition at a four-year public institution. Several governors have since established state branches of WGU (Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Washington).

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