A recent article in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis reported on an investigation of policies punishing students for graduating with excess credits. Excess credit hours are the credits that a student obtains in excess of what is required for a degree, and many students graduate having taken several courses more than what was needed.
To the extent that tuition does not cover the cost of instruction, and/or that financial aid is paying for these excess credits, someone other than the student—the college or the government—is paying for these excess credits. Graduating with excess credits also means that a student is occupying possibly scarce classroom seats longer than s/he needs to and is not entering the work force with a degree and paying more taxes as soon as s/he could. Thus there are many reasons why colleges and/or governments might seek to decrease excess credits. The article considers cases in which states have imposed sanctions on students who graduate with excess credits, charging more for credits taken significantly above the number required for a degree. The article shows that such policies, instead of resulting in students graduating sooner, have instead resulted in greater student debt. But the article does not identify the reasons why this may be the case. Perhaps one reason is because students do not have control over those excess credits.
For example, as described in my forthcoming book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York, students may accumulate excess credits because of difficulties they have transferring their credits. When students transfer, there can be significant delays in having the credits that they obtained at their old institution evaluated by their new institution. At least at CUNY colleges, the evaluation process can take many months. During that period, a student either has to stop out of college or take a risk and enroll in courses that may or may not be needed for the student’s degree. Even when appropriate courses are taken, all too often credits that a student took at the old college as satisfying general education (core) requirements or major requirements become elective credits, or do not transfer at all. A student then has to repeat courses or take extra courses in order to satisfy all of the requirements at the new college. Given that a huge proportion of students now transfer, or try to transfer, their credits (49% of bachelor’s degree recipients have some credits from a community college, and over one-third of students in the US? transfer within six years of starting college), a great number of credits are being lost.
Nevertheless, a 2010 study at CUNY found that a small proportion of the excess credits of its bachelor’s degree recipients was due to transfer—students who never transferred graduated with only one or two fewer excess credits, on average, than did students who did transfer. Some transfer students may have taken fewer electives at their new colleges in order to have room in their programs to make up nontransferring credits from their old colleges, without adding many excess credits.
But does this mean that we should blame students for those excess credits and make them pay more for them? Certainly some of the excess credits are due to students changing their majors late and/or to not paying attention to requirements and so taking courses that don’t allow them to finish their degrees, and there may even be some students who would rather keep taking courses than graduate.
But there are still other reasons that students may accumulate extra credits, reasons for which the locus of control is not the student. Especially in financially strapped institutions, students may have been given bad or no guidance by an advisor. In addition, students may have been required to take traditional remedial courses, which can result in a student acquiring many of what CUNY calls equated credits, on top of the required college-level credits (despite the fact that there are more effective ways to deliver remediation without the extra credits). Or a student may have taken extra courses that s/he didn’t need to graduate in order to continue to enroll full-time, so that the student could continue to be eligible for some types of financial aid and/or (in the past) health insurance. Students may also have made course-choice errors early in their college careers, when they were unaware of excess-credit tuition policies that would only have an effect years later.
The fact that the imposition of excess-credit tuition policies did not affect the number of excess credits accumulated but instead increased student debt by itself suggests that, to at least some degree, the excess credits are not something that students can easily avoid, and/or that there are counter-incentives operating that are even stronger than the excess tuition.
Before punishing students, or trying to control their behavior, we need to have a good deal of information about all of the different contingencies to which students are subject. Students should complete their college’s requirements as efficiently as possible. However, just because some students demonstrate delayed graduation behavior does not mean that they are the ones who are controlling that behavior. Decreasing excess credits needs to be a more nuanced process, with contingencies and consequences tailored appropriately to those students who are abusing the system, and those who are not.