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Thought Leadership

Want to Improve College Completion Rates? Revisit Degree Plan Design

Adam Downs

Director, Academic Solutions, Kaplan

Four–year schools should consider ways to build flexibility into their degree programs

Of all the overdue reforms our higher education system could make to improve degree completion rates, smoothing the pathway for transfer students would probably have the biggest and fastest impact. Just last month, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that an extraordinary 39 million Americans have some college credits but never earned a degree. That’s a huge pool of talent that could contribute a lot to the country with more forward-looking policies on the part of colleges.

Right now, however, nontraditional transfer students face multiple challenges in seeking to complete a college degree. The biggest one may be in transferring previously earned credits to a new school. For starters, there are often logistical headaches; it’s common to have earned credits from multiple institutions, and just tracking down transcripts can be tough. But the next step is often even harder. If the new institution does not recognize previously earned credits, they get lost in the transfer process, setting the student back. Loss of credits in transfer makes the road to a degree longer and more arduous and makes students less likely to complete it. But education leaders have significant power to create better outcomes. In a previous article for Bold Learning, I discussed how loosening university policies to accept more legitimate and valuable credits upon transfer could tame “transfer swirl” and encourage workers who have put their college education on hold to return to higher education and complete degrees. This week I’m adding a further set of suggestions. To be even more effective in helping nontraditional transfer students, universities could account for their backgrounds and needs in the actual design of the degree programs. Here are a few approaches:

An open pool of nonmajor electives

The easiest way to make a degree plan more friendly toward nontraditional transfer students is to allocate, university-wide, a certain amount of credits as nonmajor elective requirements. As things stand, many degree requirements are excessively rigid. They call for a very specific list of classes to earn an academic major along with general-education classes chosen from a well-defined menu of options – with nonmajor electives being “what’s left over” after all else is decided. By requiring every degree to have a certain amount of nonmajor electives, institutions can enable greater flexibility in how prior school credits can be applied so they are not lost by an incoming transfer student. Ideally, any credit bearing nondevelopmental collegiate class would transfer toward a student’s nonmajor elective requirements. This approach could be especially useful to the nontraditional student whose education ambitions changed since they last attended school. For example, the former criminal justice major who goes back to school for business would be able to use those criminal justice credits to meet nonmajor elective requirements of their bachelor’s of business administration.

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A tiered flexibility scheme for major electives

Intelligent degree plan design can bring flexibility even to major electives. Major courses are not infinitely interchangeable, of course. For some, no substitutions will do. But for others, you may find more wiggle room than you expect, particular if you focus on overall degree objectives and specific learning outcomes.

Major course requirements could be designed according to a four-tiered system:

  • Tier 1: Electives tied to an overall degree objective (i.e. “Global Business Elective”

  • Tier 2: Electives tied to a specific learning outcome with a degree objective. (i.e. “Macroeconomics Elective”

  • Tier 3: Requirement satisfied by any one of multiple courses offered at the institution. (i.e. BU101, BU102, or BU103)

  • Tier 4: Requirement satisfied by a single course or transfer credits with the approval of the dean or department chair. (i.e. BU101 or comparable transfer credit)

A chance to streamline offerings

Of course, degree plan design is already a complex process that must consider the needs of the profession, terminal learning objectives, faculty availability, accreditation, and myriad other issues. And there are plenty of challenges to creating a degree plan that welcomes nontraditional transfer students and sets them up to succeed. Allowing three different internal courses to satisfy a degree requirement means consistently offering all three courses, for example. But this kind of rethinking also creates an opportunity to work across the institution to find other courses similar in content to your own. Those classes can then be included as an ‘or’ option in your degree plan, or the course catalog can be streamlined. Either change provides a benefit to the institution.

The promising news is that we know there’s a lot to gain by streamlining transfer policies and designing transfer friendly degree plans. In fact, much of the gap in graduation rates between students who begin at community colleges and those who begin at four-year schools likely centers around the loss of credits in transfer. Controlling for factors like GPA and number of credits previously earned, researchers found that the chances of graduation increased dramatically when the target institution accepted most or all of a student’s credits in transfer. That tells us that changes like those I’ve described, could go a long way in helping those 39 million Americans earn their degree. Welcoming, encouraging, and accommodating nontraditional transfer students doesn’t require the wholesale transformation of a timeworn process – just an infusion of flexibility.

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