Regents approve new policy for four-year NU bachelor's degree
students studying on lawn Regents approve new policy for four-year NU bachelor's degree

University of Nebraska students who want to save time and money by graduating in four years now have a direct path to do so.

Under a new policy approved by the Board of Regents, most NU students who take a full course load of 15 credit hours per semester for eight semesters will be able to earn their bachelor’s degree after four years. The 120-credit hour policy aims to provide significant savings to students and their families as well as maximize the university’s financial aid programs.

Currently, many degree programs require 125 credit hours or more – the result of “credit creep” that, over time, has had the unintended result of extending time to graduation for many students.

“The University of Nebraska must address the public concern that college costs too much and that it takes students too long to graduate,” NU President James B. Milliken said. “While we will, of course, continue to maintain reasonable rates of tuition and invest in financial aid as part of our efforts to keep the university affordable, I believe one of the best ways we can provide savings to students is by accelerating their time to graduation.

“A fifth year of college adds about 20 percent to the cost of a bachelor’s degree,” Milliken added. “The university can mitigate this cost by implementing a 120-credit hour path to a degree, so that students can be expected to complete their education in four years assuming they plan ahead and make prudent choices during their college careers.”

Tied to P-16 Initiative

Milliken noted that the policy is aligned with the Nebraska P-16 Initiative, which Governor Heineman chairs. One of the eight P-16 goals is to improve the time to degree completion and increase graduation rates among Nebraska’s college students. Milliken, one of four co-chairs of the P-16 Initiative, leads that goal.

The policy also builds on NU’s four-year graduation guarantee, which was approved by the Board in 2002 and is based on a mutual commitment from students to follow prudent practices while in college and from the university to ensure that required courses or acceptable alternatives are available.

Board of Regents Chairman Bob Whitehouse, a member of the P-16 Leadership Council, said, “The bottom line is this: Students who take an average of 15 credit hours per semester for four years and are successful with their course of study should find themselves as University of Nebraska alumni. I believe offering an NU bachelor’s degree at 120 credit hours is the right thing to do for our students, their families and the university.”

The new policy will become effective for students entering the university in fall 2012. The policy guarantees that an NU baccalaureate degree requires 120 credit hours, unless otherwise approved by the Provost in cases where professional accreditation or state certification would require more credit hours, or where a degree is defined as a five-year degree. Any other exceptions must be approved by the Board of Regents.

‘A responsibility to students and families’

Linda Pratt, executive vice president and provost, said, “Many departments have let the hours in the major grow in recent years.” Reductions in credit hours required for a degree program could come from departments and academic officers re-examining requirements in the major or in the general education coursework.

The university’s three primarily undergraduate campuses already are making progress on this front, Pratt said.

“We need to make it possible for students who work hard at their courses to be able to graduate in four years,” Pratt said. “Making that possible is a responsibility we have to our students and their families. It will save them tuition, room and board, and reduce their level of debt if they can be out of college with a degree in hand after eight full semesters. It will also enable the university to stretch our financial aid to help more students if we can graduate them in four years instead of five.”

Pratt noted that currently, only one-quarter of NU freshmen complete at least 15 credit hours per semester. That figure rises slightly for upperclassmen, but still, NU students take an average of nine semesters to graduate.

Given that about 60 percent of NU baccalaureate graduates report loan debt, and that the average debt load is $18,000, shortening students’ time to graduation has significant financial implications, Pratt said. Resident students pay approximately $9,000 to $10,000 per semester, depending on which campus they attend.

The new policy does not require that students graduate in four years – many still will choose to stay in school longer, for a variety of reasons – but rather provides the opportunity for those who want to finish on time to do so.

Other strategies

The university will encourage advising programs that inform students about completing their degree in four years, Pratt said. The university also will support initiatives designed to help students choose a major.

A related goal is increased collaboration between two- and four-year colleges in Nebraska to facilitate transfer of credit hours and seamless transitions for students from two-year institutions to four-year institutions. NU’s OnCourse program, for example, provides automatic admission to the university for community college students who meet an established set of criteria.

The university also plans to continue expanding Online Worldwide, its distance education platform, to provide college completion opportunities for the 265,000 Nebraskans who have completed some college but have not earned a degree.

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