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System Studies “Time To Degree” Issue

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USG Students Taking Fewer “Credit Hours,” Extending Time to Graduation

Atlanta — April 18, 2001

Georgia’s public colleges and universities have both an opportunity and a responsibility to increase the number of students who graduate while cutting the average number of years it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The University System of Georgia Board of Regents heard a report today which cited the need for current traditional students to increase their academic loads in order to graduate in a more timely manner. The momentum for the study was driven by data derived from the board’s comprehensive benchmarking study conducted last year. Ultimately, the 16-member board will pursue the development of new policies to improve overall graduation rates.

The presentation to the Board’s Strategic Planning Committee, led by Senior Vice Chancellor for Academics & Fiscal Affairs Daniel S. Papp, focused on graduation rates in the System’s colleges and universities compared to their national peers. The presentation also analyzed recent trends on overall “headcount” - or total - enrollment and “equivalent full time student” enrollment - or the total number of credit hours students take over a given semester.

“We should be concerned about both our graduation rates and our headcount enrollment, because both are indicators of how well we as a System and a state are doing in reaching our goal of a more educated Georgia,” Papp said during the presentation, held on the campus of Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. “For the University System, this is a stewardship issue for the state – in terms of managing limited resources – and for individuals - who we need to help earn a degree in less time and at less cost.”

An analysis of four-year graduation rates shows that the System’s regional and state universities, as well as the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University, fall at the low end of the “normative range” when compared to out-of-state peer institutions. Only the University of Georgia has a four-year graduation rate well above the normative range of its peers.

But when the data is reviewed on six-year college graduation rates (now the average time most students take to earn a degree), on average the System’s regional and state universities fall just below the normative range for their peer institutions in other states. Among USG research universities, Georgia State also falls below the normative range, while Georgia Tech and UGA have six-year graduation rates at the upper end of the range.

The time it takes a student to graduate is closely related to the number of credit hours taken per semester. Reviewing recent trends in this area, the regents discovered that while the System’s headcount enrollment is currently at the second-highest level in its history, yet the number of students taking 16 or more hours per semester has steadily declined since 1993.

Papp noted there are a number of variables affecting this decline. First, 1993 was the year the HOPE scholarship program was introduced. One reason students take fewer hours, Papp suggested, is to help preserve the “B” average necessary to maintain the scholarship. Other variables include the strong economy during the 1990’s, which leads people to the workforce instead of into college classrooms. Also, the Board’s 1995 policy that reduced the hours needed for most degrees to 120, improved transfer agreements among institutions, and the change in course structure resulting from the switch to semesters are all factors.

The impact of all these variables is born out when an analysis of students taking between 12 and 15 hours is conducted. Papp noted that the students taking 16 or more hours didn’t just disappear. Rather, the benchmarking data shows they shifted into the 12-15 hour category, where the numbers have steadily increased from 79,000 students in 1993 to 94,000 students in 2000. Thus, Papp noted, the challenge for the System is to create supportive policies and design innovative course structures that encourage more students to shift their course loads back to the higher 16 credits plus level.

Also of concern to the regents is the significant drop in the number of students taking five or fewer hours - from 23,000 in 1993 to 13,000 in 2000. These are non-traditional students – adults juggling jobs, children and other responsibilities while returning to college. While some of the same factors apply to these non-traditional students, Papp noted that the time commitment for a particular course over a 15-week period has a major impact on this student population. “This means we need to rethink our current course structure and rearrange courses to make them more accessible for our non-traditional students,” Papp said.

Final principles and action steps resulting from the regent’s year-long analysis of its benchmarking study are expected to be adopted by the regents in June after their strategic planning meeting later this spring.

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