An 80 credit-hour bachelor's degree?
- Lucas Kavlie, vice president for compliance and accreditation at Western Governor's University, makes an argument that if the nation wants to decrease student debt burdens and increase student completion rates, the best way to achieve both is to "move the finish line closer" and create degree programs that require fewer credit hours.
- "Institutions are judged on whether or not the students in their program are graduating in four or six years," Kavlie said in a recent phone conversation with Education Dive. "If people were smart, they’d say we can raise our four-year grad rates by lowering the number of credit hours that people need to do" to get to the degree. He pointed out that under the Affordable Healthcare Act, a full-time employee is one who works 30 or more hours per week and, assuming two hours of out-of-class work for every hour of in-class instruction, students technically hit this mark with 10 credit hours per semester.
- Accreditors and professions have different standards — SACS, for instance, requires 120 credit hours after high school for an institution to award a bachelor's degree, while all of those hoping to sit for the Certified Professional Accountant (CPA) exam have to complete no fewer than 150 hours. But Kavlie said this is a conversation that needs to happen with accreditors and institution heads who should all "push the bounds of higher ed regulation" to improve student success.
Though 12 credit hours is considered the minimum for full-time enrollment, a student cannot finish in four years taking the minimum course load, which is the premise behind the 15 to finish campaign — that is, unless the bachelor's degree requirement was adjusted to 96 hours.
"Roughly 40 credits in today’s baccalaureate degrees are [general education]. Roughly 40 are major-specific, then you’ve got 40 credits that are minors, supporting credits, electives — that’s the fluff in the degree that I believe could be removed to allow an individual to progress a lot more quickly in his or her academic career," Kavlie said. "For those who know what they want to do and begin with the end in mind, we are hamstringing them with the additional debt burdens."
One issue, from the institutional standpoint, of trying to encourage students to finish faster is that colleges lose tuition dollars as students complete and they don't recoup them on incoming enrollments, because of fewer children are coming through the pipeline. But Kavlie argued, "If you could figure out a way to eliminate roughly 25% of a student’s credits, that could afford a roughly 10% increase in tuition," which is a "net gain for everyone."
It would take a coordinated effort across departments to promote more cross-disciplinary courses, WGU leader said. But entry-level composition courses, for example, could be eliminated if there are more required writing-intensive courses in every major. "Students don’t necessarily care of they’ve passed Comp 1, Comp 2, but if they can’t write, they feel badly when they go out into the world."
It also means working more closely with students at a younger age, because though Kavlie said most general education requirements "are just repeating high school," data show that increasingly high schools are failing to prepare students for college and careers.
However, with more students transferring between multiple institutions, Kavlie said another challenge is whether students will be "able to take those courses that are interdisciplinary and then be able to transfer those somewhere else if they aren’t able to finish where they started" and still get credit for both course requirements, which may require some discussion between institutions and accreditors. But, he added, for people who question whether students can master all of the things they need to without taking as many classes, those are people who "don’t full understand competency-based education" and recognize the role assessments play in gauging mastery.
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