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“But it seemed like a good idea at the time”: A cautionary tale for higher education policy makers

college graduate

Over the last several years a number of states and institutions have jumped on the idea of “excess credit hour” (ECH) policies that impose surcharges on students who take more than the required number of hours to graduate. The logic was simple: If students know they will pay more per credit hour if they take excess credits, more of them will graduate on time.  A recent study published by the American Education Research Association (AERC) examined the impact of these policies.  The results are concerning. Over time, these policies across states were shown to have no significant impact on student college completion. They do significantly increase student debt with the greatest impact on lower-income students.

The author’s suggest one possible contributor to the results is that students (especially traditionally underserved students) know nothing about the policies until it is too late to do anything to change course to a timely completion. That issue points to an even larger problem with these policies. Why might students not know about these policies? Because generally we have imposed these punishments on students for excess credits without effectively implementing practices we know will help them graduate on time. In other words we are punishing the victims of institutional malpractice.

Through the good work of organizations like Complete College America we now know what it takes to get students out on time and with the right number of credits:

  • Redesign developmental education that moves students into credit bearing work quickly and successfully;
  • Create transparent pathways to degrees that offer flexibility without excess credits, time and costs;
  • Improve student data systems to ensure students stay on those pathways each semester and intervene as soon as problems arise, not after they have doomed the student;
  • Implement intrusive advising practices that focus on students who benefit most from good advising—no more waiting for students to show up at the advising office;
  • Integrate high impact learning practices into the classroom that increase student engagement and retention generally and especially for underserved students;
  • Change institutional culture so that courses are taught with adequate capacity to serve all students in identified pathways who need those courses when they are required to stay on track. (In brief, teach courses when students need them—not when faculty or the institution finds it convenient to do so.)

Once this set of reforms is implemented it might make sense to impose ECH punishments as additional motivation for students to stay on track as long as the policies are clearly articulated from day one through intrusive advising. ECH policies without these changes seem analogous to punishing people for being sick when we have taken away their access to preventative health care.

While, as always, “more study is needed,” the current study at the least suggests policy makers revisit their ECH policies and perhaps consider allowing them only for colleges that have implemented effective practices to support on time graduation from the moment the student arrives on campus.

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