Valuable Learning or "Spinning Their Wheels"? Understanding Excess Credits Earned by Community College Associate Degree Completers
Substantial numbers of students who earn an associate degree from a community college accumulate more college credits than are required. This is an important phenomenon for at least two related reasons. First, it raises the issue of efficiency: Are students getting their degrees in the most expeditious manner, both in terms of time out of the labor market and in terms of the monetary cost of attaining the degree? Second, to what extent is the extra work undertaken by students beneficial to them, even when it does not contribute to degree attainment? This paper documents the phenomenon of excess credits by examining the credit distributions of six recent cohorts of students in one state‘s community college system. The analysis is limited to the records of those students who completed associate degrees. The main contribution of this paper to the existing literature is that it considers excess credits in the context of particular degree programs. I first examine the extent of excess credits overall in the community college system. Then I present case studies of individual degree programs to better understand the details of what may be generating the excess credits within these programs. The paper finds that excess credits accounted for about 12 percent of all college-level credits earned by students who completed a degree, with substantial variation among students in different programs. Among the excess credits of students enrolled in particular programs, most were spread out over a wide variety of subject-specific and general courses. Finally, while this paper does not seek to make any normative judgments on the value of excess credits, I discuss possible reasons that may contribute to excess credits and conclude with methodologies that individual colleges and college systems could employ to assess the extent and nature of excess credits for their students, thereby allowing practitioners to ascertain the relative value of excess credits in their systems.
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