State colleges hope credit cap boosts graduation rates
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Four of five students at Shepherd University don't graduate within four years, and fewer than half, 46 percent, graduate within six years, according to school data.
However, Shepherd is ahead of the curve compared to the 43.8 percent average six-year graduation rate for West Virginia universities, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
The national six-year graduation rate is 55.5 percent.
Getting students into the workforce in a timely manner is a problem facing colleges across the country, said Dr. Kathy Butler, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
Butler said the commission is encouraging universities to streamline academic programs so that all bachelor's degrees require 120 credit hours. Associate degrees are to require 60 credit hours.
Different majors can require different numbers of credit hours. According to a national study, the average student has 137 credit hours upon graduation.
"This 120-degree movement . . . has forced us to look at what is important in a program," Butler said.
Shepherd is leading the pack in streamlining programs. Although Butler said every university in West Virginia is moving toward the 120-credit hour system, Shepherd has initiated its own redesigned curriculum.
That change went into effect in the fall, and the results were "a little unexpected," admitted Kimberly Scranage, Shepherd's vice president of enrollment management.
When offered the chance to adopt the new curriculum, 62 seniors were able to graduate earlier than expected, she said.
While none of those students graduated in less than four years, each was able to forgo a semester, Scranage said.
"With students being able to get out in a timely fashion, (they) won't have to borrow as much money," she said.
The cost of education and the amount of credit needed to earn a degree are some of the biggest factors working against students graduating on time, Scranage said.
Some programs require hefty amounts of credit, and Shepherd found that "students couldn't get it all in in four years," she said.
Many circumstances could lead to a student graduating late, Scranage and Butler said. Some students change majors, faculty or departments sometimes insist on splitting up classes or requiring more classes for graduation or a student might need to take remedial courses.
Looking back on her time as provost at Glenville State University, Butler said some students took classes that were fun but didn't count directly toward a degree.
"What they did is they took underwater basket weaving," Butler said. "They'll fill (their schedule) with things that really don't help them get their degree."
Her statements fall in line with a 2010 report from the Southern Regional Education Board. Entitled "No Time to Waste," the report suggests several ways colleges can shorten the time it takes to graduate. Butler said it served as the inspiration for the commission's 120-credit hour push.
In addition to the limit on credit hours, it encourages administrators and faculty to look for ways to efficiently combine or remove programs while still providing students with the training they need. Students also need to be held accountable for delayed graduation, according to the report.
"Students must also do their part to reduce excess courses by limiting the number of credits they take above the required minimum," the report states.
Butler admits such recommendations reflect a shift in higher education focus - from academic and personal growth to job training.
And while she thinks the college experience still will offer personal maturation and social exposure, students shouldn't forget about their professional training.
"West Virginia is in need of college graduates," she said. "The key to building the economy in West Virginia is education."
As a part of the revamped class structure, freshmen will take a one-credit course during their first semester to help them transition into college life, said Dr. Richard Helldobler, vice president of academic affairs at Shepherd.
Students will get to know each other as they learn time management and study skills, he said.
Seniors will attend the classes to talk to new students about their majors. The idea is to let freshmen figure out sooner rather than later if they should change direction and perhaps keep themselves on track to graduate on time.
Helldobler said Shepherd trimmed the average graduation requirements from 128 credit hours to 120 hours. Specifically, the core curriculum requirements were reduced from 48 to 42 credit hours. The change was achieved through a combination or redesign of some introductory level classes, he said.
Employer recommendations also were taken into account, he said.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities found that employers were looking for students with better oral and written communication skills.
So Shepherd reduced the number of required literature courses but introduced one that was more writing intensive.
The new system will have students taking five courses worth three credit hours each per semester. Helldobler said the new curriculum requires fewer credit hours but provides more class choices for students to meet degree requirements.
"It's really a philosophical shift," he said. "The faculty offers choices, but the students choose. . . . We want students to be in meaningful courses."
Shepherd administrators and Butler said they've had positive feedback from both faculty and students.
They agreed the new format could make Shepherd more competitive in recruiting. Butler thinks the competition will encourage other colleges to implement similar systems.
If the competition doesn't result in curriculum change, the policy commission will weigh in.
Butler said each of the state's public universities must adopt the 120-credit hour system before their five-year review in 2017.
However, she thought sanctions for failure to do so were unlikely. She thinks universities will comply because of the potential bumps in graduation rates and overall student success.
"It's a good thing to do," Butler said. "It's not an easy thing to do. It causes us to take that hard look, but that's a good thing."