Reducing Time to Degree by Cutting Credit Creep

The longer a student takes to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree, the more it costs both the student and taxpayers. Fewer than half of all students entering four-year universities in 2003 and 2004 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 48 months or less. The Center for College Affordability and Reliability reports the public sector would save $7.5 billion each year if all students graduated on time.

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  Download the Excel Version of the Table: "Median and Percentage Distribution of 2007-08 First Time Bachelor's Degree Recipients by Number of Months from Enrollment to Degree Attainment and Enrollment Characteristics"

When it comes to paying for higher education, time is money. The longer a student takes to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree, the more it costs both the student and taxpayers. Students often change  majors—sometimes more than once. They frequently take courses that do not count toward graduation or that closely duplicate other classes they’ve already taken. The term, ‘four-year degree’ has become a misnomer in today’s higher education. In fact, the majority of college students take significantly longer than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree. 
Reducing time to degree matters not only because extending this time costs students more money for tuition, fees, room and board, but also because it has broad implications for state budgets and institutional planning. Taxpayers spend, on average, nearly $5,900 per student enrolled in a public college or university per academic year.1 The Center for College Affordability and Reliability reports the public sector would save $7.5 billion each year if all students graduated on time.2 Increased time to degree attainment also delays entry into the workforce, resulting in reduced lifetime earnings.
The center’s report also points out a so-called “crowding out” effect that results from students taking longer than four years to earn a bachelor’s degree or more than three years to earn an associate degree from a community college. Since schools can handle only a limited number of students at one time, those students taking too much time to graduate take up space that prevents students who might otherwise have taken their place from enrolling.3
Furthermore, when students take longer than four years to graduate from state universities or more than two years to complete a degree or certificate at a community college, it makes forecasting, budgeting decisions and determining faculty needs more difficult for institutions. Now, states and institutions are beginning to examine policies that have allowed increased time to degrees to take place.
Students Taking Longer to Earn Degree
The U.S. Department of Education reports just 44 percent of students entering four-year universities in 2003 and 2004 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 48 months or less. At public universities, that figure is only 38 percent.4 (See Table) That trend, however, is 
not new.
A 2010 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research compared students completing high school in 1972 and those graduating 20 years later. Both groups enrolled in college to pursue bachelor’s degrees, but the study found the percentage of students earning a bachelor’s degree within four years dropped significantly during that time, from 58 percent among the class of 1972 to 44 percent among the class of 1992. The time to degree increased most for students beginning their higher education careers at less selective public universities and at community colleges, according to the report.5
The median time it took for bachelor’s degree recipients to earn their degree in 2008 was 52 months, according to the Education Department. Forty-four percent of 2007–08 first-time bachelor’s degree recipients completed their degree within 48 months of their initial postsecondary enrollment, another 23 percent within 49–60 months, and an additional 9 percent within 61–72 months.6
The median time to earn a degree was 55 months for 2008 bachelor’s degree recipients graduating from public institutions, 45 months for graduates of private nonprofit institutions, and 103 months for graduates of private for-profit institutions. Graduates who started at a two-year public institution and subsequently obtained a bachelor’s degree had a median time to degree of 63 months. Bachelor’s degree recipients who delayed entry into postsecondary education had a median time of 80 months.
The table shows some of the other factors influencing time to degree. For example, students who earned a bachelor’s degree from a historically black college or university, known as an HBCU, took an average of four months longer to earn their degrees than students who did not earn degrees from an HBCU. Students attending a historically Hispanic enrollment institution took 18 months longer, on average, to earn a degree than students who never attended a
historically Hispanic enrollment institution. Students who attend more than one postsecondary institution also tend to take longer to earn a bachelor’s degree. The median length of time to degree for students attending just one college or university is 45 months, compared to 56 months for students attending two institutions and 83 months for students attending three or more.7
Factors Influencing ‘Credit Creep’
Education researchers have coined the term “credit creep” to describe the increased number of credits students take to earn a college degree. The primary reasons behind this have to do with the students. Often they are not prepared for college and are required to take remedial courses before starting their credit-bearing general education classes. Others change their major, sometimes multiple times, resulting in them taking longer than four years to complete
a degree. 
Most large universities offer a dizzying array of majors from which students can choose. The University of Michigan, for instance, offers 250 majors. Students often lack the knowledge or foresight to select a major when they enter college. Although it is sometimes appropriate for students to change majors when they realize they made a poor decision or when the economy indicates they would have a greater likelihood for success in a different field, changing majors is a significant factor for the increased time to degree.
Policymakers need to recognize today’s postsecondary students have changed dramatically from those just a generation or two ago. Alison Griffin, a senior associate with HCM Strategists, an advocate for improving America’s system of higher education, points out, “This age-old idea of college students going full-time, living on campus, having this residential experience, only represents a quarter of today’s college students.” Griffin asserts a shared responsibility among students, institutions and states is needed to ensure students graduate on time. She said students must develop a graduation plan and stick to it; institutions must make graduation, not head counts, the measure of their success; and states must remove policy barriers to on-time completion.
The Population Studies Center at The University of Michigan reports increased time to degree is a result of three factors:
  1. Students who are less prepared for postsecondary education generally take longer to complete their degrees than students who are well-prepared; 
  2. Decreased funding has resulted in a reduction in course offerings. Some students, consequently, are forced to wait until a required course is offered, extending time to degree; and 
  3. The increased cost of higher education leads many students to work while enrolling in college part-time rather than full-time.8 
Community colleges also are a factor in credit creep, according to the report. Students starting their postsecondary studies in community colleges are less likely to complete a degree than students starting at four-year institutions. This appears to be because students who are less financially and academically prepared end up at two-year institutions.
Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization promoting college readiness and access, states in a report that the average time for a student who transfers to a bachelor’s degree-granting institution from a community college is 16 months longer than a student who begins at a four-year college or university. Nontraditional students, Jobs for the Future concludes, including older students who delayed initial enrollment, attend classes part-time to work or have a family, are least likely to complete a degree in five years.9
The number of credits students take to earn a degree frequently is influenced by the university. While students need 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree in the majority of programs, those requirements vary from college to college. Without any uniformity, a student might be able to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, for instance, with 120 credits at one institution. A student at another college might be required to earn 128 credits for the same degree. Some programs, particularly in the engineering field, typically require more than 120 credits. Georgia Tech University, which has one of the most highly acclaimed engineering programs in the country, requires its students to earn 124 credits.10 This raises the question: Why do other universities require more credits than Georgia Tech?
Complete College America conducted a survey of 189 degree programs at 310 postsecondary institutions in 2012. Half of the programs required 120 credits to graduate. Of the remaining baccalaureate programs, most required between 121 and 128 hours. Two percent, however, required at least 140 hours. All were in engineering fields.11
What States Are Doing
In the mid-1990s, alarmed by an increase in the number of credits students were taking in order to graduate, several states adopted measures to reverse the trend. At the University of Florida, for instance, the average program required 128 credits for a degree in 1995. A state review surveyed 100 colleges and universities to determine how program requirements in the University System of Florida compared with other postsecondary institutions nationwide. The study found that in almost every degree program, highly reputable colleges and universities around the country had held degree requirements to 120 credits.12
Within a year, the state reviewed 600 degree programs at Florida universities and half had their requirements reduced. By the end of the process, 500 of the 600 programs required only 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree and many of the remaining 100 programs cut the number of credits needed to graduate. In 2010, the average degree requirement at the University of Florida stood at 122, down from 128 at the start of the process 15 years earlier.13 
In a report conducted by Complete College America, Senior Consultant Nate Johnson writes that although a reduction of six credits might not seem like much, “with 9,000 graduates a year, the change translates to nearly 56,000 credits annually, the equivalent of more than 400 additional four-year degrees with the same level of enrollment.”14
Wisconsin also established a goal in 1993 to reduce the number of credits required for a degree at its colleges and universities and implemented reforms similar to those in Florida. The result has been a decline in average credits attempted by students from 145 in 1993-94 to 132 in 2008-09. Johnson points out this change allowed the institutions to accomodate 15,000 more students than they could have accepted 16 years earlier.
Indiana legislators enacted similar legislation in March 2012. House Bill 1220 eliminated excessive credits necessary to earn a college degree by capping most bachelor’s degrees at 120 hours and associate degrees at 60 hours. Before the law took effect, nearly 90 percent of Indiana college degree programs exceeded 120 credits.15
House Bill 1220 requires state colleges and universities to provide justification for degree programs exceeding that standard. In a press release, former Gov. Mitch Daniels said, “At a time when higher education has never been more important, earning a college degree is taking Hoosiers too long, costing them too much, and leading far too many to pile up debt with no degree.”
It is important to note that increased credit requirements is only one factor influencing the length of time it takes students to earn a degree. Reducing credit requirements will not, by itself, make a four-year college degree within reach if students are not prepared for college or if they are financially incapable of enrolling full-time. Limiting degree programs to 120 credit hours, however, is widely viewed as low-hanging fruit—a reasonable starting point that will shave thousands of dollars off the cost of a college degree. In many cases, students must earn more than 120 hours to become highly qualified for a career. Without clear justification, however, institutions should be expected to design programs that enable students to graduate in 48 months or less.
1 State Higher Education Executive Officers. “State Higher Education Finance: Fiscal Year 2012.” (2013)
2 Vedder, Richard, et al. “25 Ways to Reduce the Cost of College.” The Center for College Affordability and Productivity. (2011) 
3 Ibid.
4 Cataldi, Emily, et al. “2008-2009 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study: A First Look at Recent College Graduates.” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2011).
5 Bound, John, et al. “Increasing Time to Baccalaureate Degrees in the United States.” National Bureau of Economic Research. (2010) 
6 Cataldi, Emily, et al. “2008-2009 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study: A First Look at Recent College Graduates.” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2011).
7 Ibid.
8 Bound, John, et al. “Understanding the Decrease in College Completion Rates and the Increased Time to the Baccalaureate Degree.” Population Studies Research Center. University of Michigan. (2007)
9 Jobs for the Future. “Time to Completion.” (2013) 
10 Johnson, Nate, et al. "Program Requirements for Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees: A National Survey.´ Complete College America. (2012) 
11 Ibid.
12 Johnson, Nate. "Three Policies to Reduce Time to Degree.” Complete College America. (2011) 
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Dick, Gerry. “Daniels Signs Credit Creep Bill.” Indiana Business Council. (2012) 


Reducing Time to Degree by Cutting Credit Creep

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