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Few community college students graduate on time. One reason many spend extra time and money trying to earn associate degrees is because community colleges often require more than 60 credits to meet academic program requirements.

Most four-year institutions now stick to the standard of 120 credit hours, according to a study conducted last year for Complete College America. But community colleges are a different story.

The survey was designed to be representative of public institutions in all 50 states. It looked at program requirements at 310 institutions, about half of which are community colleges.

The results are broken out by academic disciplines. They vary widely across states and even colleges within states. None of the 104 associate degree tracks surveyed had a median requirement of 60 credits or lower, according to the research conducted by HCM Strategists, a public policy research and advocacy firm. About 13 programs required 64 credits. Many topped 70 or more.

Nate Johnson, a higher education data expert who managed the survey, said he was surprised that half of the community colleges surveyed did not have a single program limited to 60 credits, including general education degrees and those aimed at students who transfer to four-year institutions.

“There was no baseline,” said Johnson.

The likely reason for the credit inflation, he said, is a common one in higher education. “People tend to add things without taking anything away.”

That can be a problem given low graduation rates at most community colleges. Complete College America, a nonprofit advocacy group, thinks unnecessary program requirements are one of several hurdles that students face on their way to graduation.

The group is pushing for states and community colleges to reduce the number of associate degree programs that require more than 60 credits. Maryland is one of several states that have passed legislation aimed at limiting degree requirements.

Sometimes college leaders aren’t even aware of high numbers of required credits in certain programs they offer, said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.

“They say, ‘Oh, how does that happen?’ ” he said. “People haven’t been paying attention.”

Easy Fix?

There are many explanations for why community college students typically take more than two years to earn an associate degree -- often much more -- even when they are enrolled full time. Students regularly skip semesters because of money woes or other life complications outside of college.

They also rack up plenty of credits while changing majors or because of transfer complications, such as when students need to take more than 60 credits to satisfy transfer prerequisites. Some students take extra courses voluntarily.

As a result, students nationwide on average hold roughly 80 credits when they earn an associate degree, according to an analysis by Complete College America (see box). And those extra 20 credits – the equivalent of seven courses – often are wasted time and money, the group said.

Program requirements are one way colleges, and lawmakers, can try to encourage more efficiency. Legislatures in Indiana and South Dakota have joined Maryland in setting limits for associate degrees.

“It’s something that states can do,” Johnson said. “And it’s relatively easy.”

Focusing on the student side of credit creep can be tougher. California’s Legislature in April knocked down a plan by the state's governor, Jerry Brown, to make community college students pay more for courses after they have earned 90 or more credits.

There are legitimate academic reasons why some disciplines require more than 60 credits for an associate degree. For example, faculty members and college leaders at some institutions make a case for why 60 credits are not enough for nursing and engineering programs.

Colleges also blame accrediting agencies for adding requirements that can jack up the number of courses that go into associate degree programs. But Complete College America thinks that argument is flimsy.

There has been little pushback when states or community colleges limit degree requirements, said Jones, which suggests that accreditors probably aren’t the problem.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities supports thoughtful debate about academic program requirements, said Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs at the association, which focuses on general education and the liberal arts.

The key question should be “are the credits adding up to the right kind of learning?” Humphreys said. “More credits aren’t necessarily better.”

Lawmakers must pay close attention to learning outcomes when considering credit limits, she said, even when their goal is to improve college completion. And those discussions should be collaborative and include faculty input.

That’s what happened in Maryland, said Ray Hoy, president of Maryland’s Wor-Wic Community College. Hoy supported the passage of a new state policy that standardizes associate degrees at 60 credits, with exceptions for three-year and professional programs. The rule is part of a broad higher education bill Maryland’s Legislature passed in April, which the governor later signed.

First-time full-time community college students in Maryland accumulate an average of 75 credits by the time they earn an associate degree, according to Complete College America. They also take an average of 3.8 years to get to graduation, which is the average among the 33 states that have signed on to the group’s completion push.

Lawmakers in the state agreed with Complete College America that reducing required credits should translate into shorter times to degree, which in turn will allow community colleges to serve more students.

Hoy said he had no hesitation supporting the bill. The limit “makes sense,” he said, adding that policy makers looked at a broad array of research on the issue to help draft the legislation.

Rejiggering curriculums to comply with the new rules is a manageable project, according to Hoy.

“It’s work for any institution,” he said, adding that the state’s community colleges revisit program requirements on a regular basis anyhow.

One wrinkle has emerged, however. The college offers a “freshman year experience” course, which is intended to give students pointers about how to succeed in college. Experts say courses like this one at Wor-Wic can help boost retention and graduation rates.

A while back the college decided to make the freshman experience course credit-bearing, in part so students would take it seriously, according to Hoy.

But with the new 60-credit standard, he said the college may have to once again make the course be noncredit.

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