Through regulation or funding policy, enact credit hour limits, except in the rare cases in which program accreditation requires otherwise
Excess credits and time to degree can be costly to students and their families, in terms of both additional tuition and lost wages. They are also costly for the public whose tax dollars subsidize the cost of an education at a public institution. Additional time and credits do not significantly increase completion rates among students seeking two-year or four-year degrees but serve only to delay or prevent completion. Further, states spending money on excess credits draw limited resources away from new, additional students they need to educate in order to meet attainment goals.
There are many reasons why students take excess credits and time to complete degree programs, including changing majors, failing or withdrawing from courses, and working and attending school part-time. Other reasons have more to do with state or institutional policies, including degree requirements and transfer policies. A survey commissioned by Complete College America found that the number of credits required to complete a degree in many programs has increased over time. Among four-year degree programs, that trend has already begun to reverse itself, with many states and institutions pushing to return to the 120-credit norm. However, among two-year institutions the standard credit requirements still vary considerably.
To improve both completion and attainment rates, states can take action to make 120 credits the norm for a bachelor’s degree and 60 credits the norm for an associate degree. There may be programs for which it makes sense to allow the requirements to exceed 120 or 60 credits, often because of accreditation, but institutions should be required to make sound justifications for those increased credit hours.
Traditionally, the standard number of credits for a bachelor’s degree was 120—30 credit hours per year for four years. In 1972, the typical student seeking a four-year degree completed 130 credits and took about 4.3 years to graduate. By 1992, the average had increased, with the typical student completing 138 credits and needing 4.6 years to graduate (NCES, Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories as cited in Complete College America, Three Policies to Reduce Time to Degree).
In 1995, the then Florida Board of Regents (now Florida Board of Governors) conducted a survey of institutions nationwide to determine average credit hour requirements. That study identified an upward trend in the number of credit hours required for a bachelor’s degree. However, more recently, Complete College America commissioned a similar study that found that trend had reversed itself and many baccalaureate programs were returning to the 120-credit norm. The earlier study had led Florida lawmakers to reduce requirements in the state system, and other states and institutions followed suit. Less historical information is available about associate degree programs, but the 2012 Complete College America study found wide variation in the number of credits required across programs and institutions. The vast majority require somewhere between 60 and 70 credits, but some require more than 70.
Complete College America’s Time is the Enemy report provides more current data on credit accumulation and time to degree. According to data collected from 33 participating states, associate degree candidates take an average 79 credits; full-time students take 3.8 years and part-time students take 5 years to complete them. Bachelor’s degree recipients are taking an average 136.5 credits, and 4.7 to 5.6 years to finish. These excess credits and additional time increase costs for students and institutions and delay or stymie completion.
Researchers at Georgetown University estimated the public cost of excess credits in three states and projected how many additional students could be served with the savings. The study, The High Price of Excess Credits: How New Approaches Could Help Students and Schools, examined costs in Georgia and New York, where excess credits are lower than the national average. According to data from the Time is the Enemy report, bachelor’s degree recipients in Georgia’s public universities earn an average of 13 excess credits. For New York, the study used data from the City University of New York that estimate 10 excess credits per graduate and extrapolated it to a statewide average. In one year, excess credits cost the public an estimated $105 million in Georgia and $151 million in New York. In California, the Georgetown study looked at data from the University of California system and the California State University system and found excess credits range considerably, with significant numbers of students taking anywhere from a year to two years’ worth of excess credits. Using a more complex analysis that examined numbers of students taking excess credits within three different ranges, the study estimated that excess credits are costing the taxpayers of California $396 million.
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.
In response to the 1995 Florida Board of Regents study, the state adopted legislation that required all institutions and programs in the State University System of Florida to reduce total requirements for baccalaureate degrees to 120 credit hours. Of 600 four-year degree programs, 300 dropped their requirements the following year to 120 credit hours. A total of 500 programs achieved the 120-credit benchmark, and the remaining 100 programs were granted exceptions. At the University of Florida, average degree requirements decreased by six credit hours.
With 9,000 graduates a year, the change amounts to the equivalent of more than 400 additional four-year degrees per year (Complete College America, Three Policies to Reduce Time to Degree).
In 2012, the Louisiana Higher Education Governance Commission released its final report and recommendations, including a recommendation to standardize credit requirements at 120 credit hours for bachelor’s degrees and at 60 credit hours for associate degrees. Later that year, lawmakers adopted SB 103/Act 622, which stated that a baccalaureate degree program shall not require more than 120 credit hours without approval from the Board of Regents and made allowances for programs that require additional hours to meet certification or accreditation requirements. The Louisiana Board of Regents established a policy to affirm the 120-credit-hour limit for four-year degree programs and set a 60-credit-hour standard for associate degrees with some variation allowed with the approval of the board.
Through a series of legislative actions and policy changes between 2003 and 2007, Texas created a system of incentives for students and institutions to limit excess credit accumulation. Texas placed a 120-credit-hour cap on bachelor’s degree requirements, with limited exceptions for certain programs. In addition, the state limits the funding it provides institutions to up to 30 credit hours beyond degree requirements, and allows institutions to charge students higher tuition rates when they exceed degree requirements by 30 credits or more. Texas offers a $1,000 tuition rebate to students who complete their degrees within three credits of their degree requirements. The state has also tied financial aid to credit completion. Recipients of the need-based Texas Grants are required to complete 24 credits each year to maintain eligibility, and the B-On-Time zero-interest loans are forgiven for students who complete their degrees within the normal amount of time.
A recent brief—Student Incentives and Time to Degree in Texas —finds some modestly positive improvements in time and credits to degree and degrees awarded. Statewide, credits to degree decreased from 149 to 144 between 2004 and 2011. Average time to degree decreased by 10 days. Degrees per capita increased by the same rate as the rest of the country; however, the gap between Texas and the rest of the nation narrowed slightly. Some institutions that implemented changes beyond what the state required have experienced significant improvements. The University of Texas at El Paso reduced average credits to degree by seven and cut half a semester off average time to degree. Over time, significant decreases in credits to degree and time to degree should free up space for the system or institution to serve additional students, which would ultimately lead to larger numbers of degrees being awarded. For more information, see Aligning Student Incentives with Institutional Incentives in Texas.
During the 1993-1994 school year, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents adopted a policy requiring institutions to review their degree requirements, reduce credits to degree, and provide counseling to students accumulating excess credits. The system’s 2011-12 growth agenda accountability report indicated that average credits attempted by graduates dropped from 146 in 1993-1994 to 137 in 2010-2011, which the system estimated is the equivalent of making room for 12,000 additional students at its institutions. Most programs at UW institutions now require between 120 and 128 credits to graduate.
- Program Requirements for Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees: A National Survey, Complete College America
- The 2013-14 Budget: Analysis of the Higher Education Budget, California Legislative Analysts Office
- Three Policies to Reduce Time to Degree, Complete College America