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Undergraduate students are taking too many classes. That may sound like a nice problem to have: Why not learn more than you have to? But consider that the average graduate of a four-year college takes the equivalent of a full extra semester of classes, or an additional 12 to 15 credits, paying thousands of dollars of extra tuition, and for many, incurring debt to do it.
The problem is far more pronounced for community college students, who make up 40 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States. Students who obtain a two-year associate’s degree typically complete a whopping 22 excess credits, according to a July 2017 report by Complete College America, an advocacy group that tracks these figures. That’s three-quarters of an entire academic year on top of the two-year program. For part-time students, that’s years of needless courses.
“It really is an epidemic,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College Columbia University. “Students are entering community colleges to save money, but if you end up taking excess credits, you’re not really saving money.”
Jenkins plans to release a working paper next month (October 2017) showing that community college students in one state who transfer to four-year schools within their state end up with 29 excess credits. It was 27 credits in another state that Jenkins studied.
Some students, of course, efficiently earn their associate’s degrees by taking only what they need, typically 60 credits. But just as many are on the other end of the spectrum, taking over 100 credits to finish.
That’s time and money that low-income working students don’t have. Many are on federal financial aid, making it a burden on taxpayers as well. Taxpayers incur additional costs because 60 percent of community college budgets are subsidized by state and local governments. One study by the Greater Texas Foundation found that excess credits cost students and taxpayers $120 million annually in that state.
The reasons students take so many unnecessary courses vary. In addition to earning 60 credits overall, community college students need to fulfill certain course requirements, some set by the college and others set by academic departments for each major. It’s natural for college students to discover their interests and change majors. When they start something new, there are new required classes and some of the classes they’ve already taken aren’t needed for graduation.
Jenkins says that many community college students arrive undecided. College advisers often suggest they take general education courses, but that doesn’t help them explore which subjects to major in. “Students take courses that are available, not according to a plan,” said Jenkins. “Most students don’t have a plan.”
Another reason for excess credits has to do with hanging onto financial aid. A required course might be scheduled when a student is working or doesn’t have childcare. So he has to wait until the course timing fits his own schedule. For students who work full time, the wait for an evening or weekend class can be long. However, financial aid rules require students to maintain a certain course load. So the student is forced to take an unnecessary class or two to maintain eligibility. This is a growing problem on many campuses, as colleges are faced with declining enrollments and are reducing the number of sections offered of each class.
Selective programs have the unintended consequence of creating streams of excess credits. For example, it can be competitive to get into a nursing program. Prospective students load up on prerequisites, such as human anatomy, in hopes of being accepted into a nursing program. Many are never admitted, but have racked up courses that they can’t apply toward their eventual majors.
For community college students who want to transfer to four-year institutions (80 percent of community college students begin their academic careers with that intention), it’s often difficult to transfer credits. Some are not accepted, others are not the exact courses that an academic department requires. For example, a community college calculus course may not fulfill the math requirement for a four-year business degree.
Complete College America looked to see if there were differences by race or income, and found that excess credits are a problem that everyone faces. Asians rack up slightly more excess credits (26 on average) at the end of their two-year degrees, but they also have the highest graduation rates. Hispanic graduates with two-year degrees had the fewest excess credits (19 on average). Pell Grant recipients had an average of 22 excess credits, highlighting the federal subsidy of needless courses.
Many community college administrators are hoping that prescribing specific course schedules, known as “pathways”, will cut down on excess credits. But more good ideas are needed.