Getting the most for your college dollar


Finance maze I’ve been hearing a lot lately about the trend in higher education toward faster degree completion. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education did an interview with a Provost from a community college in Utah regarding the implementation of 8 week classes at the same time as the traditional 16 week classes. At a Busy Community College, a Short Semester Joins the Normal One. There has been a recent push at the university where I’m completing my bachelor’s degree to go to strictly 8 week classes. This sounds like a great idea on the surface, but are you really getting a good return on your investment?

As noted in the Chronicle article, some of the advantages of 8 week courses include the ability for students to register for classes after the initial weeks of a semester. It is very common for students to find out they need more credits to maintain financial aid, or to have a course cancel close to the start of classes due to a lack of enrollment or unexpected resignations. Courses starting mid-semester mean those students have an opportunity to fill the holes in their schedule without special permission to add late, and without being left behind other students who did not miss the first day of content. Finances allowing, this could also allow students to complete courses more quickly (and therefore degrees more quickly) and allow for a more flexible schedule to accommodate working adults.

Salt Lake Community College specified that their 8 week courses still contained the same number of instructional hours as their 16 week courses. When colleges do not equalize contact hour with credit hour is when students could lose the most money. If these plans are implemented poorly, it is hoped that their accreditation bodies would correct it, but the accrediting bodies are not necessarily contacted when these changes take place.

There is an easy way to determine whether you are receiving the number of hours you should be if you are a student in these condensed classes. The rule of thumb is that 1 credit hour is the equivalent of 1 hour of contact with an instructor in the classroom. Often laboratory, clinical, or other non-traditional experiences are at ratios of 3 contact hours to 1 credit hour. You will need to review the policies of your college to determine the exact ratios as well as length of time of which a credit hour consists (semester hour, quarter hour, etc.).

In most cases, a semester is 15-16 weeks long, so 1 credit hour means that course meets one hour per week over 15 or 16 weeks. To simplify, we will assume that a semester is a 15 week length of time and instruction is classroom (or didactic) only. So the formula looks like this:

# of Credit Hours X 15 = total number of contact hours

In this case, a 3 credit hour course would be equal to 45 hours of instruction. If you are paying for a 3 credit hour course, but getting fewer than 45 hours of instruction, you are not getting the same level of instruction as your peers.

Although I appreciate wanting to create a system, particularly for returning adult students, which allows them to more quickly complete their degree, it should be carefully monitored. The online courses are being pushed as the full semester length equivalent of these short courses. However, this leaves some students in a pickle. As a returning adult student, who recognizes that traditional classroom instruction is often how I learn best, I have the following choices now:

  1. Overpay for an 8 week course that attempts to teach the entire content in half the time (24 hours rather than 45).
  2. Take an online course which forces me out of my best learning style.
  3. Find another institution that offers the courses in a format that better utilizes my dollar.

I have two classes left to complete my degree, so I am choosing to overpay for the courses in order to have the opportunity to progress in my education. In the future, I’ll be researching teaching as well as charging methods in the programs to which I’m planning to apply and choosing the one that gives me the best return on my money and the greatest opportunity to learn the content at a comfortable pace.

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