BALTIMORE — Reducing college students’ "time to degree" and eliminating the excess credit hours many students take can help states graduate more students faster — and save students, institutions and states money, said higher education leaders attending a conference here last week sponsored by Jobs for the Future (JFF) and the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).
SREB President Dave Spence called for states and institutions to help most college students finish four-year degrees in about 120 hours by removing inconsistent credit-hour requirements, cumbersome college-transfer rules and more. Addressing these issues will help significantly more students earn degrees, which should be a major priority for every state and the nation, he said.
The changing economy and new work force demands clearly show the need for states to increase the numbers of college degrees and career certificates that students earn each year, Spence said. "This has just got to happen," he told the audience of state leaders, policy-makers and national experts here.
New money for higher education is not likely in the current economy, requiring colleges and universities to "do more with less," he said, adding that states will need to spend more over time on higher education to increase enrollment and financial aid.
Spence spoke at the Time to Completion: How States and Systems are Tackling the Time Dilemma event held by JFF, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, and Atlanta-based SREB, which works with 16 member states to improve preK-12 and higher education.
SREB is urging its member states, from Texas to Delaware, to work toward having 60 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 with some type of college degree or career certificate within the next 15 years. The major new SREB report No Time to Waste: Policy Recommendations for Increasing College Completion is a policy roadmap for states working toward this target and is online at www.sreb.org. The target matches Lumina Foundation for Education’s goal for the nation and other national organizations’ goal. Lumina funds JFF’s Time to Completion project.
For the first time, SREB will expand its collecting and monitoring of state data on time and credits to degree for college students, Joe Marks, the longtime director of Education Data Services at SREB, announced at the conference Wednesday.
Nancy Hoffman, vice president and senior advisor for JFF, spoke of three critical dimensions of students’ time to degree: intensity (whether students attend full time or part time); momentum (whether they move right from high school into college and complete it without "stopping out"); and acceleration (whether they are assessed by level of proficiency rather than seat time).
JFF also announced the release of new online tools to help institutions, system officers and policy-makers better understand different aspects of time-to-completion issues. Additionally, a new paper from JFF, Taking the Next Step: the Promise of Intermediate Measures for Meeting Postsecondary Completion Goals, looks at milestones and indicators of success as students progress through postsecondary education and how those points can help with state policy, institutional improvement and coordination across colleges.
Some higher education officials don’t see a problem with many students spending multiple years to finish one-year technical certificates and associate’s degrees, said Stan Jones, the president of the Washington-based nonprofit Complete College America and a former higher education chief executive and legislator in Indiana. He said state leaders must continue to dispel the notion that many students cannot finish degrees or certificates because of disadvantages or racial/ethnic/class backgrounds. "It's about people changing as much as systems changing."
State Senator Tim Shaughnessy of Kentucky, a member of the SREB Board, spoke of the relatively low graduation rates at many public two- and four-year institutions and resistance among some higher education leaders to make efforts to improve those rates.
California State University-Northridge President Jolene Koester described how her 32,000-student institution has made improving students’ time to degree and graduation among its most important goal. In recent years, her institution had "a culture of benign neglect" about helping students graduate, she said. She found that students averaged 146 credit hours in earning a degree. CSU-Northridge has taken several actions to reduce the credits required for degrees, cut some academic majors, now offers "stretch" courses that offer students credits toward degree for revamped remedial courses, and has taken many more campus actions to help more students graduate as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Performance funding was a central topic of discussion at the conference. SREB’s No Time to Waste report recommends that states begin to tie larger portions of higher education funding to degree/certificate completion and student retention — rather than depending on funding formulas that emphasize enrollment.
Officials from the Virginia Community College System reviewed their system’s efforts to "compress" some courses (including academic and remedial courses) to shorten time to degree for some students. Their efforts aim to help students move past remedial courses much more quickly than before.
Lumina Foundation for Education President Jim Applegate called on states and institutions to help students, parents and employers to better understand the value of degrees and to know more about how to earn one. By the year 2020, not having postsecondary education likely will mean being poor in the United States, he said. More adults with some college credit but no degree need to be drawn back to college and earn academic credit for prior work experience, Applegate said. He added that blended and online learning is crucial in improving degree completion, and that much work remains to more closely link career/technical education with higher learning.
Rich Rhoda, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, described his state’s first-in-the-nation, lottery-funded scholarship for high school students who want to take dual enrollment courses.
Extensive research and experiences have been catalogued by JFF under a Time-to-Completion policy framework as part of the College Productivity Initiative (www.collegeproductivity.org), which is funded by Lumina Foundation for Education.
For more information about SREB’s efforts to improve degree and certificate completion, contact SREB Communications.
The Southern Regional Education Board, or SREB, based in Atlanta, was created in 1948 by Southern governors and legislatures to help leaders in education and government work cooperatively to advance education and improve the social and economic life of the region. SREB has 16 member states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. More information is available online at www.sreb.org.