Smart Growth

Running the Academy by the Numbers

Topics: Capacity Planning, Academic Planning, Academic Affairs, Program Costs, Program Prioritization, Faculty Workload, Faculty Affairs, Space Utilization, Facilities and Operations, Administration and Finance

Curriculum: Reducing Nonessential Credits

Reducing Nonessential Credits

Minimizing the number of unused seats in classrooms and sections can significantly increase capacity. This assumes, however, that most students follow an efficient path to their degree. At many institutions, however, students take an excessive number of credits, they repeat courses multiple times, and they take more credits than are required for a degree—essentially taking up capacity in courses that could be used by other students.

Retention is an issue much broader than the challenge of managing instructional capacity, but they intersect in the way that students who take excess credits both slow their own path to graduation and, at the same time, reduce the capacity available to serve other students. The overall retention rate and the six–year graduation rate, two of the typical metrics that institutions track, fail to identify the impact of poor scheduling (such as required courses with insufficient capacity) and of students who take too many credits off the path to a degree. In other words, lack of capacity in bottleneck courses can prevent students from graduating on time, and students who take longer to graduate can themselves create bottlenecks, taking up seats in courses that could have been offered to other students.

Reducing Nonessential Credits

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Extra Credit Isn’t Always a Good Thing

Public Institutions Seeing Upper-Division Students “Crowding Out” Freshmen

Students who take significantly more credits than are required to graduate (sometimes known as “super seniors”) are a problem because they use up more resources than students who take a more direct path to their degree. Even allowing for a certain amount of exploration and changes in degree plans, having a significant number of students who complete 20 to 50 percent more credits than required increases costs and reduces capacity.

The challenge of students who take 120 to 150 percent of the credits required to graduate is most common at public universities. (Students at private colleges and universities are generally motivated to complete more quickly because of the significantly higher tuition.) The data above comes from California State University-Northridge. Like many other public universities, they had a large number of so-called “super seniors,” students with more than 120 percent of the credits required to graduate. These students had repeated courses multiple times or simply taken courses in excess of those required for a degree. (Many also transferred in with significant credits.) But many were still short of the specific courses they needed to graduate. Some linger for years, continuing to take up slots in popular courses but failing to make progress toward graduation.

Public Institutions Seeing Upper-Division Students “Crowding Out” Freshmen

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Giving Registration Priority to Students Who Need It

Selected Elements of the CSU-Northridge Graduation Initiative

One approach to solving the super senior problem is an advising system that restricts students’ ability to repeat courses multiple times, change or add multiple majors late in their career, and register for non-required courses. Many state institutions also begin charging out-of-state tuition once a student passes a certain threshold (typically 120 percent of required credits).

To address this issue of super seniors, Northridge launched a “Graduation Initiative.” They made all super seniors meet with an advisor and limited their registration to required courses. Students who had already completed all of the requirements for a degree but were still taking classes were mailed a diploma. Northridge reduced the cutoff for financial aid from 180 credits down to 150, and they limited majors and minors. Students were allowed no more than two majors and two minors, and they were required to declare a major by 60 units and to add or change major by 90 units.

All of these steps were to help students move through to graduation more quickly. They also changed the policies on registering for repeat courses. Originally, students with more credits had priority in registration, even if they did not need that particular course for graduation. Northridge gave students repeating a course the lowest priority, and students repeating a course a second time required approval from an associate dean.

Selected Elements of the CSU-Northridge Graduation Initiative

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Avoiding Costs by Reducing Excess Credits

Over just two years, the Graduation Initiative at Northridge reduced the number of super seniors by 25 percent and the number of repeated courses by almost 43 percent, representing signifi cant avoided costs and increased capacity.

Cal State Northridge calculates that reducing the number of super seniors saved them $500,000 and freed up 9,000 student credit hours. Each course repeated by a student, they estimate, costs $2,000, yielding savings of well over a quarter of a million dollars for the 2,300 course repeats they avoided. This is not to say that Northridge suddenly found themselves with $750,000 in extra cash. These avoided costs manifested themselves as new capacity—new students could now find seats in those courses once filled with repeaters and super seniors.

Avoiding Costs by Reducing Excess Credits

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Increase Access Without Increasing Costs

CSU – Northridge Graduates More Students and Admits More Freshmen

More important than any imputed cost savings were two outcomes linked directly to Northridge’s mission. Helping super seniors graduate more quickly rapidly boosted their six-year graduation rate, and it also allowed them to admit more new students while holding overall enrollment (and overall costs) constant.

Northridge can calculate how much money it saved by reducing wasted credits and repeated courses, but the real goal was to unlock capacity and serve more students. The Graduation Initiative moved so many super seniors to completion that the six-year graduation rate jumped from 40 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2010. Perhaps even more importantly, it enabled Northridge to continue to expand access despite its financial constraints. Like all of the CSU’s, Northridge is limited in its ability to grow enrollment to meet expanding demand. In fact, it is operating under a tight cap on overall enrollment. By getting more of the super seniors out, they were able to free up space and actually increase the number of new students admitted. To use a manufacturing analogy, they were able to increase throughput—serving more students with the same facilities and therefore lowering the cost per student.

CSU – Northridge Graduates More Students and Admits More Freshmen

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Reducing Nonessential Credits

Guiding students to the right courses and preventing them from taking excessive courses off their degree path can significantly increase capacity at institutions facing tight limits on enrollment. Automatically registering students for required courses is one of the simplest and most effective approaches to ensuring that students get access to the courses that they need, without preventing others from doing the same.

Reducing Nonessential Credits

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Instructors: Consolidating Unnecessary Sections

Flipping the Classroom