Community Colleges

Getting General Ed Credits 'Out of the Way' at Community Colleges Is Lousy Advice

Getting general ed requirements "out of the way" by going to a community college may be among the worst advice people could give to new students because it could result in them earning many more credits than they need, hampering their efforts to get over the four-year finish line.

As a working paper published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College noted, previous research found that only about 60 percent of community college students were able to transfer most of their credits to the four-year institution; and another 15 percent were "hardly able to transfer any of their credits." As a result, their chances of earning a bachelor's degree shrank, and the cost and time required to earn their degrees rose. Greater success exists, the report added, where community colleges and universities have aligned their programs to help students "take the right sequence of courses to maximize credit transfer applicability toward their desired majors and to minimize overall excess credits."

The use of data mining allowed researchers to understand why so many community college students end up with "excess credits" after they've transferred to four-year school and earned their bachelor's degrees. The two primary reasons: 1) because they take "larger proportions" of courses in the 100 and 200 level and smaller proportions of courses in the 300 level; and 2) they tend to take 100-level courses — especially in math — immediately after they've transferred into the four-year school.

Those findings are part of a larger effort to understand the inefficiencies of the credit transfer process.

The latest project involved comparing the "course-taking behaviors" among those transfer students who earned bachelor's degrees with numerous excess credits to those who do so with few excess credits. The work also included an analysis of students who started at a four-year college and completed a bachelor's degree.

The researchers examined longitudinal unit record data on students in two states who started at a community college and subsequently transferred and earned a bachelor's degree within the state college system (and whose data met other criteria). The data included student demographics as well as information about types of courses and the timing of those courses. Then they looked at the degree to which "different sets of indicators surfaced" through the data mining analysis to explain the variance in students' excess credits.

The use of data mining techniques was important, the paper explained, because it's "particularly well suited for the analysis of associations between course-taking patterns and student outcomes such as the efficiency of credit transfer."

Many of the two- and four-year students were unable to finish the 100- and 200-level courses needed to move into the 300- and 400-level courses making up their specific majors by the time they had earned 60 credits. The researchers suggested that students could minimize the number of excess credits they'd acquired by the time of graduation by choosing a field to major in "early on," so that by the time they'd hit that 60-credit mark, they were positioned to be able to take the higher-level classes.

The researchers lay at least some of responsibility for addressing the excess credit problem at the feet of college leaders. "Our findings highlight the importance of early advising and other supports focused on helping students explore career and academic options and choose a program of study," the report stated. Frequently, what students hear from their community college advisers is to tackle the general education requirements in order to gain the "greatest flexibility to choose a major when they transfer. "The findings from this analysis suggest that this may be bad advice," the researchers wrote.

Rather than taking lower-division courses willy-nilly, students should focus on just those required for their majors to position themselves to be ready for upper-division classes by the time they transfer into a four-year institution. On top of that, exploring and choosing a major "pathway" early on could help them avoid taking a glut of 100-level courses after they've earned 60 credits, a pattern that was all too common among students with excess credits.

"These findings," the report concluded, "emphasize the importance for colleges and universities of working both internally and with their transfer partners to create clear programmatic degree pathways, to help students to explore and select a major field early on, and to ensure that students continue to take courses that will apply to a degree in their intended major as they progress."

The working paper is openly available on the CCRC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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