Are there quality downsides to expediting college completion?

As more students set their sights on college enrollment and completion, states, colleges, and universities are making changes aimed at helping students graduate on time. However, critics say “well-meaning reforms,” like dual-enrollment courses, may sometimes cause more harm than good, according to the The Hechinger Report.

A report from the National Student Clearinghouse indicates that 85 percent of students at two-year community colleges take at least three years to graduate (or don’t finish). Among students at public four-year institutions, more than 62 percent take five years or more to earn degrees (or drop out altogether).

Giving high school students a head start

With this in mind, higher education stakeholders are experimenting with efforts to accelerate students’ college career in hopes of reducing associated costs and increase their likelihood of completion. Dual-enrollment, or dual-credit, programs, for instance, allow students to take college-level courses during high school to get a head start on earning credits toward a degree.

While research shows that students taking dual-enrollment classes are more likely than their peers to attend college and take less time to earn degrees and certificates, critics question the courses’ rigor and value. Some point out that many dual-enrollment classes are overseen by high-school teachers, rather than college professors.

Another approach targeting high school students—”white-collar apprenticeships”—aims to help students gain experience and expose them to careers requiring a college education. Some experts, however, worry that such programs are time-consuming and take students’ focus away from the classroom.

Condensing college—but at what cost?

Other reforms focus on shortening students’ journey to a degree, eliminating remedial courses and replacing them with tutoring, reducing the number of credit hours required for certain majors, and even giving students the option to obtain four-year degrees in three years. Those skeptical of these changes, meanwhile, say they risk watering down programs and allowing students to leave college without developing the proper skills to be competitive.

At least 32 institutions now give students the option of shaving a year off their undergraduate education, but “they are taking the four-year curriculum and simply squeezing it into three years,” says Paul Weinstein, director of the Johns Hopkins University graduate program in public management. Weinstein says the option primarily benefits the most academically prepared students, adding that others “plan on it and they can’t do it, so they drop out.”

Frederick Hess, founding director of the education policy studies program at the American Enterprise Institute, co-authored a study on ways to improve college completion without reducing quality. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to improve education, but our good intentions can make us unintentionally do the wrong things,” Hess told The Hechinger Report. Hess’s study recommends approaching these sorts of well-meaning reforms cautiously to ensure they’re “designed with attention to potential consequences, and informed by due regard for the full range of outcomes that matter to taxpayers and students.”

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