By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
Note: This article is the second in a two-part series on credit caps.
In Part I, I explained why higher education credit cap policies — rules that limit the number of credits students can take – sometimes destroy the potential of those students who are driven and capable of more. I know this because I was once such a student.
Start a degree program at American Public University.
When I was in the midst of my first four-year undergraduate degree, I quickly realized I could handle more work than the credit cap at my university would allow. I also wanted to expedite my learning path so I could move on to graduate studies as quickly as possible and get an edge on my competition in the workplace. I had my fair share of the “well-rounded college experience,” but I was strongly motivated to learn and excel.
So I went to my advisor to ask about my options. I was told in so many words that there weren’t any. Essentially, it was explained to me that I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of a higher course load, even if I believed I could do it. Ostensibly, the university knew me better than I knew myself.
What did I do? I researched my dilemma and discovered that credit cap policies don’t apply outside the schools that create them. So in an unconventional move to resist what seemed to me like a conscious effort to limit my progress, I enrolled at a second college and began taking classes at both institutions simultaneously. I then transferred my course credits from one college to the other at the end of each semester.
As a result, I was able to increase my course load by more than 50% of the credit cap at my primary institution. I also maintained the same GPA that I had prior to adding the extra course load. And by combining the work from both institutions I was able to finish a four-year degree in about two years, and I got the head start I was hoping for on my graduate work.
I don’t share my own story to brag in any way. Rather, I share it because I’ve met many really bright students over the course of my academic career who have had the same potential to push their limits and excel, but who they either did not know about the loophole I found or weren’t cunning enough to rebel against ”the system” the way I did. And these were truly exceptional people, some I might go so far as to call geniuses in development.
I worry about how credit caps might have held them back from maximizing their potential at the most critical points in their intellectual cultivation. How many major innovations or breakthroughs would have to wait–or would never come at all — because brilliant thinkers were told they couldn’t move at their own pace? As a student and as an educator, I am convinced that these caps limit the potential of those who would otherwise be capable of much more.
Credit Caps Can Suit Some Students’ Needs, but Not Others
A common counterargument is that problems could arise if students bite off more than they can chew. If their course loads aren’t regulated, they might overestimate their abilities and fail. Wouldn’t that be a worse outcome?
Let me address this point by clarifying a few things. First, I should state unequivocally that I am in no way advocating pressuring students to take on a greater course load than they themselves are comfortable with. Support for eliminating credit caps would not — and should not –be the same thing as support for requiring students to take on more courses than they feel they can handle.
Every student is different. When I did my first four-year degree, I was a young, single man with no children, no pets, no obligations and no outside distractions. But many students have other circumstances that require them to move at a slower pace; there should be no pressure on such students to take more classes than their situations permit.
For this reason, it should also be noted that I am equally in favor of eliminating credit minimums that require students to take at least X number of credits to remain a half-time or full-time college student. Often, these requirements are tied to financial aid eligibility and other significant factors.
The fact is some students have important priorities that compete for their attention such as military duties, family obligations, and medical issues. Such students should never be made to feel like they have to choose between these obligations and school; nor should they be punished if they cannot meet arbitrary minimum course load standards.
Extenuating circumstances aside, however, if a student freely chooses to take an excess number of credits and ultimately fails to maintain passing grades in coursework, then that institution would be perfectly justified in imposing some type of academic probationary credit cap thereafter. This would be the equivalent of saying “OK student, we tried it your way and it didn’t work. Now we’re implementing some structure.”
Reprising our treadmill analogy from Part I, if you try to run a four-minute mile and pull your hamstring in the process, perhaps the gym would be justified in telling you to take it easy. After all, you won’t be meeting your health and wellness goals if you’re constantly getting injured.
But preemptive credit caps are not interventionist tactics because they purport to tell students what they’re capable of before they have a chance to find out for themselves. This is a disservice to all stakeholders in higher education.
One University Has Eliminated Its Credit Cap Policy: A Future Trend?
Fortunately, however, there appears to be hope. In 2018, the University of Delaware removed its credit cap policy, the aim being to help students finish their degrees within projected timelines.
Even better, the university operates on a fixed annual tuition, so Delaware will not charge students any additional fees for taking extra credits. Not only are University of Delaware students now permitted to take more credits if they wish, but they are actually financially incentivized to do so.
Let us hope that this trend continues, so that students everywhere are free to test their own capabilities and maximize their own potential.
Start a degree program at American Public University.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.