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For years now states have been adopting various policies that work to push students to complete their degrees.

But one of those policies may be adding to student debt and harming low-income students.

A new policy analysis published by the American Educational Research Association today in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal finds that state-adopted "excess credit hour" policies show little evidence of promoting completion and do more to increase median student debt.

Excess credit hour policies assess a tuition surcharge for any credits taken beyond a predetermined threshold. For example, Arizona charges a fee of 120 percent of the tuition rate if students cross 145 credits at four-year universities, with the assumption that most programs can be completed with 120 credits. On the other hand, Florida’s fee is 200 percent of the tuition rate if students cross 110 percent of their program of study at any of the state’s two- and four-year institutions.

The researchers found that four years after states adopted excess credit policies, overall median student debt increased between 5.7 percent and 7.2 percent. And the impact of those policies on student debt was concentrated among low- and middle-income students.

The researchers realized that student debt could be increasing in these states because of an information gap between state policy makers and individual students.

“Students are only exposed to the policy when they’re close to the threshold, and at that point, it becomes too hard to make a substantive change to their degree program,” said Dennis Kramer, a professor of higher education at the University of Florida and the report’s co-author. “These policies also shift the cost burden from the states to the individual students.”

A typical bachelor’s degree program takes 120 credit hours to achieve, but of the states with excess credit policies the fee thresholds average 145 credits, and students may not learn about the policy until they get to around 130 credit hours, Kramer said.

“We do think there is an opportunity for these policies to become enhanced by robust advising and degree planning,” he said.

But states need to find a balance between encouraging students to complete their degrees in a timely manner, while also allowing them the flexibility to explore multiple disciplines and get a liberal education, Kramer said.

“If four-year completion rates were going up and debt was going up, that may not be as bad of an outcome,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University and the report’s co-author. “But we’re not seeing an increase in completion, just debt.”

The researchers found marginal evidence that, after excess credit policies began, the six-year graduation rate for Latino students increased between 2.5 percent and 3.4 percent. However, the six-year graduation rate for black students dropped between 3.5 percent and 4.2 percent.

Other states, like Indiana, have also adopted policies to decrease students' time to completion, like the 15 to Finish model -- which pushes students to take at least 15 credits per semester, with the ultimate goal that students complete their bachelor’s degrees on time.

But there’s a difference between incentive models like 15 to Finish and those described as more punitive, like excess credit policies.

“We are completely opposed to anything that increases costs for students,” said Dhanfu Elston, vice president of strategy, guided pathways and purpose first for Complete College America, which promotes 15 to Finish. “We never want to see an environment where students are penalized or a punitive policy fails to address the issues that lead to excess credits, and that was the spirit behind 15 to Finish.”

But as more states move toward performance-funding policies and focusing on metrics and outcomes, they’re looking to use incentives as a carrot to get students to a degree.

Kelchen said 15 to Finish can become punitive for students, however, if states set policies where they lose their financial aid if they don’t achieve the 15 credits.

“But 15 to Finish doesn’t mean students finish closer to 120 credits -- they just have to take 30 credits a year to stay on track,” he said.

And students are more aware of how many credits they need to achieve a degree if they’re keeping track of them semester to semester, Kramer said, adding that a student in their first or second year of college isn’t worried about having excess credits -- that comes when they’re close to that barrier.

“We’re not advocating for these policies to go away,” Kramer said. “We’re hoping for opportunities to enhance these policies. Most higher education scholars would agree providing incentives for students to complete their degree in a timely fashion is a good thing.”

Chart: State-Adopted Excess Credit Hour Policies. Arizona: 145 credits, 120 percent of tuition rate, only at public four-year universities. Florida, 110 percent of program of study, 200 percent of tuition rate, public two-year and four-year institutions. Massachusetts, 118 percent of program of study, out-of-state tuition rate, public two-year and four-year institutions. Nevada, 150 percent of program of study, 150 percent of tuition rate, public two-year and four-year institutions. North Carolina, 140 credits, 125 percent of tuition rate, University of North Carolina system. Texas, 45 credits beyond program of study, out-of-state tuition rate, public two-year and four-year institutions. Utah, 125 percent of program of study, 200 percent of tuition rate, public two-year and four-year institutions. Virginia, 125 percent of program of study, 200 percent of tuition rate, public four-year institutions. Wisconsin, 165 credits or 30 beyond program of study, 200 percent of tuition rate, public two-year and four-year institutions.

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