Getting College Degree Completion Back on Track Using Alternative College Credit

Today’s student entering college is facing a 1 in 2 chance that they will not finish a bachelor’s degree within six years. That’s a 50% chance they will leave an institution with debt, credits that may not transfer, and without the degree needed to move to their career of choice. Many factors unique to individual students play a role. However there are some common barriers to degree completion including learning models disconnected from student needs, insufficient full time attendance, financial aid requirements discouraging timely matriculation, and part-time student cohorts that are dropping out more often than graduating. To help students finish what they have started, colleges and universities are exploring new attendance models and retooling to the needs of the “new normal” learner. Low cost college credits from so-called “alternative credit providers” can furnish debt-free alternatives that supplement an institution’s own efforts to encourage timely degree completion.

Traditional Learning Models Do Not Always Address “New Normal” Learners

70% of students work and go to schoolAdult learners and working students who were previously considered “non-traditional” make up an increasingly growing share of college students. As of 2014, students 25 years of age and older were 31.3% of total college students enrolled and 49.2 % of part-time enrollees. Furthermore, more than 70% of college students work while attending school, and more than a quarter of students are working full-time while attending college. This student population, juggling work and in many cases, family responsibilities as well, are fast becoming the “new normal” as opposed to the on-campus full-time student of the past. These students have more constraints on their time and finances than ever before, and need more flexible learning models that are available anytime and anywhere at an affordable price.

“Full Time” Attendance isn’t Enough to Graduate on Time

Students face a 24 credit deficit after fours years of studySeveral issues prevent many full time college students from earning their degree. First, many students who enroll take too few credits to finish in a timely manner. Twelve credits is considered full-time for financial aid purposes. Based on the standard 120 credit degree program, freshman students earning only 12 credits per semester throughout their college career stay six credits behind pace per year, compared to peers taking 15 credits per semester. At that rate, at the end of four years, minimum full time attendance (12 credits per semester) results in a credit deficit of 24 credits, or at least an extra year of study, which causes far too many to finish well beyond four years, if they finish at all. Many that do make up this ground must take on extra debt to do so.

The Financial Aid Consideration

Students taking too few credits isn’t necessarily an issue of lack of drive. Federal financial aid is based on a 12 credits per semester model, leaving aid-dependant students to cover extra credits on their own to stay on pace. Students that receive Pell grants, which are based on financial need, are particularly bound to credit limits as well as a semester limit of 12 semesters, excluding summer semesters.

“Part-time” Students Are Most Vulnerable To Dropping Out

Nearly 70% of part-time students don't graduatePart-time students actually fare much worse concerning degree completion, as they are more likely to drop out than to finish their degree within six years. Per a National Student Clearinghouse study, nearly 70% of students who are enrolled as “exclusively part-time” had dropped out within six years. Degree completion rates are also the lowest for this group, only finishing degrees at about 17% within six years.

Some Complementary Solutions for Student Support

To address these issues, many colleges and universities are smartly beefing up their academic counseling services to better advise students on how to stay on track. Additionally, some institutions are implementing success coaches to attempt to bolster completion rates. These types of programs can likely be helpful, but may not be enough to boost completion levels to where they should be for accredited institutions. Support can come from outside the institution as well as the inside.

15 to Finish Initiatives

Re-educating students and colleges about earning “momentum” credits has been a key focus of Complete College America’s “15 to Finish” program. The program urges colleges to promote full-time college attendance to students as 15 (credits) per semester, to offer financial incentives by “banding” full-time tuition pricing (versus per-credit pricing), and to use aid rewards for students who attempt heavier course loads, to move students toward degree completion. Complete College America also recommended providing more support for college students in remedial classes to prepare students to progress into credit-bearing classes. The “15 to Finish” initiatives mainly address the needs for students enrolled as a historically traditional full-time status. However, all students may not have the schedule available to take 15 credits per semester in a traditional in-person setting.

Using Alternative Credit to serve the New Normal Learner

An innovative and low cost approach to help students earn their degrees is to offer more opportunities to earn and transfer more prior learning credits into their degree programs. Alternative Credit providers, particularly those which use Open Educational Resources (OER) are especially well-equipped to address the needs of adult learners. Alternative credits provide flexible learning paths with 24/7 learning opportunities, credentialing prior knowledge and work experience, and encouraging self-paced scholarship. Allowing students to take alternative credit courses as either part of their “15 to finish” during the year, or to incorporate it as prior learning, will increase graduation rates and not require students to take on additional debt.

Saylor Academy has been assertive in developing a variety of alternative credit partnerships to ensure more students are able to earn the credentials they desire, and more institutions are able to help them.

Credit Transfer Programs

Saylor students save around $1,200 per college credit courseSaylor Academy has several competency-based credit partnerships. Many of our courses have been reviewed and recommended for credit by the American Council on Education (ACE) and/or the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS). Our courses can help students complete requisites and gain the momentum needed toward a “15 to finish” program. We also have a number of direct credit partnerships with Thomas Edison State University, Colorado State University, Charter Oak State College, Empire State College (SUNY) Bellevue University, Excelsior College, and many others, including dozens of colleges and universities as part of the Alternative Credit Project.

Alternative credit is of course not a “new” concept. ACE & NCCRS have been reviewing non-college providers for college level learning for over 40 years. Indeed, the widely regarded “AP” and “CLEP” exams are ACE reviewed programs and are the hallmark of alternative credit programs. As noted in this post, ACE’s tested rubric for review has now been applied to other providers in recent years with the same scrutiny for demonstrating college level rigor and learning. Now, students need colleges to treat equally all ACE programs that meet their well tested standards for demonstrating college level learning.

Degree Completion Pathways

Students saved $217,000 in tuition with the Finish Line partnershipOne of our flagship degree completion partnerships is University of Memphis’ Finish Line program. The partnership has helped 172 students return to school and graduate. University of Memphis faculty reviewed Saylor Academy’s OER courses and deemed them eligible for credit. The university then offered the courses to former students with at least 90 credit hours as an opportunity to finish without incurring additional debt. Students have saved over $217,000 in tuition and completed 669 credit hours.

Credit Alternatives in tandem with Higher Education

Using available credit alternatives and re-thinking attendance and scheduling considerations; colleges can inexpensively retool credit models to suit “traditional” and “new normal” learners alike. Historically traditional and new normal learners benefit when higher education institutions accept and promote alternative credit options that are always available, faculty reviewed, and low cost. Students who are able to transfer competency-based learning or prior learning or are much more likely to graduate than their peers without prior learning credit, as demonstrated by a CAEL study on transfer credit and degree completion rates. In addition to increasing graduation rates, alternative credit allows financial-aid dependent students and others to earn credit toward degrees without accruing additional debt. Alternative credit acceptance, implemented with degree completion pathways in mind, serves both students and institutions alike.

Curious about how low cost, ACE-backed college credit courses can help you or your school encourage degree completion?

Students and prospective students can reference our College Credit Guide or contact us.

Schools and organizations interested in encouraging degree completion can contact Jeff Davidson, Strategic Relationship Director at [email protected] or Jackie Arnold at [email protected] for more information.

Start the discussion at discourse.saylor.org