How colleges can leverage time to lower costs and improve student success

Taking more time to complete courses makes students less likely to earn a degree. This is especially true for a significant number of today’s non-traditional learners.
Heather Combs
Heather Combs
Heather Combs is the CEO of StraighterLine, an educational company that offers low-price, online higher education courses equivalent to general courses required for a bachelor's degree.

Growing up the middle child of three siblings in a then-single-parent family, I took every step I could to evade paying off the cost of college for decades. I worked every semester I was in school, crammed four years’ worth of college into three and took summer classes and internships that awarded college credit.

Although I took a hard road to graduate with minimal debt, I still took on $25,000 ($44,161 when adjusted for inflation in 2023) from Texas A&M University, a public institution which by most measures is affordable.

There appears to be no relief in sight for student loan forgiveness. U.S. Supreme Court justices are deliberating the Biden Administration’s sweeping college loan forgiveness plan to relieve $1.76 trillion in student loans for some 43 million Americans. However, backers of Biden’s plan have their hands tied; they are pushing the White House to start working on an alternative proposal in case it gets struck down, and they also can’t seem to agree on who should pay this enormous sum and which students should get relief in the case its upheld.

Multiple issues fuel the rise in college prices, and the solutions to them are hotly debated and politically contentious. Yet, there is one issue affecting the cost of college that neither side can argue with and which postsecondary institutions can readily address: Time.

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The time it takes to earn a degree can be a burden for today’s learners

Time is perhaps the most critical element in the college equation because time is truly money. The longer students stay in school, the more they’ll have to pay—and borrow—to get a degree. Delaying graduation also postpones the start of a career that can generate the income a college degree can provide.

A bachelor’s degree is designed to be completed in eight semesters over four years, assuming a student isn’t working. But many students have jobs, which is partly why today’s college students need a median of 52 months to finish a four-year degree.

However, taking more time to complete courses makes students less likely to earn a degree. This is especially true for a significant number of today’s non-traditional learners. This subset of students balance jobs, family commitments, adult responsibilities and academic obligations while paying their way through school.

How do we reduce the time to a degree?

Stretch high school further. A growing number of states are expanding the practice of dual enrollment, which allows students to take for-credit college courses while still enrolled in high school. By taking college courses in high school—often at no cost to students—learners can earn up to two years of college credit before they enter college. As the share of students participating continues to grow, more are completing a college degree before they even finish high school. For example, in the 2018-19 academic year, 7,100 high school students in Texas earned associate degrees by the time they graduated 12th grade.

Over 1 million high school students are enrolled in our nation’s community colleges. But rather than continuing with their current “laissez-faire approach,” state college and university systems and other education providers should use dual enrollment with more intention to move students toward bachelor’s degrees or other valuable credentials while still in high school.

Make every course count. On average, students lose more than 40% of their previously earned credits when they switch schools, often leaving them with stranded credits left on the table. Institutions and state systems should remove the financial disincentives for rejecting transfer credits. Transfer credits can and should easily include the supplemental options provided by online offerings provided by alternative online college credit providers.

Count learning experiences. Competency-based education that includes credit for prior learning allows students to earn college credit when they master specific skills and competencies. This asynchronous self-paced approach offers maximum flexibility and can substantially reduce time and cost for motivated students.

Improve college advising. Institutions should clarify to students that graduating in four years requires them to take at least 15 credits each semester. This should be a top priority: A recent report from higher ed student success firm Ad Astra found that full-time students at four-year universities average just 14.75 credits per semester. What’s more, college advisors should assist students in taking classes in a methodological manner, ensuring that students’ courses count toward their degree requirements.

Or, redesign the undergraduate student experience altogether. Institutions can rethink how they do business to help speed time to completion. There seems to be renewed interest in designing three-year bachelor’s degree programs that could solve both time and money problems.

Many students don’t finish college expeditiously for a multiplicity of reasons. And not everyone can work part-time and finish college in three years as I did. But colleges and universities bear some responsibility for unnecessarily extending the time to degree that drives up the price people must pay, and in many cases, the debt they take for it. If institutions can accelerate the time to completion, they can reduce the cost of college to better serve the student. After all, aren’t the students the ones we want to see succeed?


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