Governor Mitch Daniels has been touting a bill working its way through the Indiana State General Assembly which would limit the number of credit hours required to graduate from a public university to 120 — 15 credits per semester for eight semesters. The idea is to lower the cost of education by getting students out of college within four years of enrolling.
Typically colleges and universities don’t like this kind of legislative interference in the daily and yearly routine of running a school. But in this case, university officials don’t seem too concerned. One official at Purdue University said he actually worked with the Commission on Higher Education to draft the legislation.
So what gives? Why are schools backing a bill which seems to limit the amount of programming offered to students?
1. It Doesn’t Really Change Much
Dale Whittaker, Vice Provost of Undergraduate Academic Affairs at Purdue, calls the bill mandated housekeeping.
“If you compare the 1960′s and the 1980′s and today, you’ll see this is the direction we’ve been moving in for decades,” says Whittaker.
The Commission on Higher Education says 90 percent of all degree programs require more than 120 credit hours for graduation. That’s a difficult statistic to independently verify because most schools don’t keep a running tally of credit hours required for each degree.
Officials at Purdue and Indiana University say of the programs that require more than 120 hours, most are only a couple of hours over. There are exceptions. For example, a biology student at IU who decides to add teaching credentials tacks on an additional 30 credits to his biology degree. That adds up to 152 credits, which means a student entering college without credits earned in high school or at another school would have to take 19 hours each semester.
A recent addition to the bill also exempts programs which require specific certifications. This includes things like engineering, education and other professional track degree programs.
2.The Law Doesn’t Really Get To The Root Of The Issue, But It Doesn’t Hurt
According to officials with both IU and Purdue, graduates regularly take more than the minimum number of required credits. Tim Niggle works with the advising office at the IU School of Education. He says once students enter the ed school, they graduate on time. The problem is what they do before they get to Niggle’s office.
“In terms of controlling what classes they’ve taken before they get to us, we don’t have much control,” says Niggle.
It’s one of the oldest debates in higher education. How long should students be allowed to explore their options before they’re encouraged to decide on a major? The longer they wait, the more credits they’re likely to accrue before they graduate and the more money they spend going to school.
Niggle says IU recently implemented a common core curriculum designed in part to allow incoming freshman to take a variety of classes, all of which count towards any major at the university. Whether students enroll in the Jacobs School of Music or the Kelly School of Business, everyone must meet the same general education requirements. But that’s only one part of the issue.
“About 50 percent of students at Purdue change their major at some point,” says Purdue Vice Provost Dale Whittaker.
Unlike a freshman who hasn’t decided on a major, these students end up with a slew of credits which don’t count towards their major. This adds up to extra dollars spent and extra time in the classroom.
3. It Makes Students Happy
Even if students are taking more credits than required, they seem to like the idea. Ally Smith majors in Sport Marketing and Management. Her degree requires 124 credit hours.
“I don’t think those four credits would really have mattered,” says Smith.
When she graduates later this year, she’ll have slightly more than the required number of credits for her degree, but she still supports the idea.
This is something Higher Education Commissioner Teresa Lubbers is quick to point out.
“This is an extremely student friendly piece of legislation,” Lubber says.
There are a lot of reasons why limiting credit requirements to 120 hours might not save students much money. On the other hand, it’s unlikely to cost them anything.
“Most unnecessary credits come from things like transfer loss, changing majors,” says Whittaker. “Lowering credit requirements probably won’t have much affect on these factors.”