By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
Note: This article is the first article of a two-part series on credit caps.
Suppose you decide tomorrow that you are going to join a fitness center and commit to improving your health. You visit your local gym, sign up and begin your first workout. You start on a treadmill at a pace that is challenging but comfortable for you.
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To your surprise, a gym employee comes over to your treadmill and unplugs it after your first mile.
“Excuse me. What are you doing?” you inquire.
“Oh, sorry. It’s in your contract. We limit you to a maximum of one mile at a time,” he says.
“Why in the world would you do that?”
“Because there are a lot of people that want to use the treadmills, and we don’t have enough of them for everyone. Also, we really want you to get a well-rounded gym experience. And a lot of our members can’t go more than a mile anyway. So we just cap everyone at a mile,” he replies.
“But I’m just warming up! I came here with goals for myself and I can’t meet them if you won’t let me workout at my own pace!” you reply.
“Sorry, but rules are rules.”
This scenario might seem absurd in the gym context, but many colleges and universities are enforcing similar senseless and counterproductive policies in higher education.
Many institutions across the United States have credit caps, rules that limit the number of classes a student can take in a single semester. Some policies allow students to petition their university for permission to exceed the caps. Others do not.
For example, American Public University System has a credit cap policy for both graduate and undergraduate students, but some exceptions are available for students with exemplary academic performance. However, most credit cap policies in higher education are not contingent upon someone’s grade point average (GPA) or other student performance metrics. Rather, they are applied preemptively to all students in all circumstances, notwithstanding individual abilities.
The Reasons Cited for Credit Caps Don’t Make Sense
Why would colleges and universities implement such policies? Purported reasons vary.
For example, Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts school within the larger Columbia University umbrella, implemented a credit cap in 2019 to alleviate over-registration problems. Barnard’s co-ed equivalent, Columbia College, instituted a similar credit cap in 2015 for the stated purpose of encouraging students to have a more “well-rounded college experience.”
Let’s look at whether these justifications really make any sense. Take the Barnard case. If there is a problem with excess registrations for classes, wouldn’t a better solution be to hire more professors and add more sections?
In our workout scenario, if the gym has high demand for treadmills, management should probably invest in more treadmills rather than ration usage among its members. If the gym has increased its membership, then it should have the money to purchase more equipment. Likewise, if Barnard has increased enrollment, the extra tuition should cover the salaries for more faculty.
The Definition of Well-Rounded Will Inevitably Vary from Student to Student
In the Columbia College case, it’s thoughtful of administrators to want their students to have a well-rounded experience. But the definition of “well-rounded” will inevitably vary from student to student.
Some students might want to explore fraternity or sorority life or an athletic hobby. Some may join the university marching band or drama club. Others will choose to focus more on their studies.
Aren’t decisions like those best made by the individual? In our workout analogy, gyms might genuinely want you to have a well-rounded experience, but they probably shouldn’t try to accomplish that by telling you what you can and can’t do while you’re there.
A third commonly touted justification for college credit caps is that institutions don’t want students to be overwhelmed by overestimating their own abilities. Put another way, schools don’t want students to set themselves up for failure. This aim is well-intentioned, but unfortunately it often ends up doing more harm than good.
Credit Caps Have the Unfortunate Effect of Limiting What Students Believe They Can Do
In limiting what students can do, credit caps also have the unfortunate effect of limiting what students believe they can do. Imagine if I told you — before you stepped on that treadmill at the gym for the first time — that no human being has ever run a mile in under eight minutes. Of course this isn’t true, but if you didn’t know better, how much confidence would you have in your ability to run a sub-eight-minute mile? Probably not much, because I’ve already conditioned you to accept a ceiling for your own potential.
But suppose instead that I told you the fastest miles have been run in under three minutes, and that sub-eight-minute miles are actually really easy to do. These statements are also untrue, but now I’ve given you a perspective that elevates your own ambitions. Suddenly, the bar has been raised, and so have your expectations for yourself.
Similarly, when a college or university implements a credit cap at 12, 15 or 18 credits, the institution is effectively communicating to the student, “We’ve decided this is as much as you’ll be able to handle. Trust us.” In my experience, this message limits what students think about their abilities.
Remember, when students first enter college, they have no frame of reference. They have no intuitive sense of what a “credit” is or how much actual work it entails. They’ve never done this before. So when they are told that X number of credits is “enough,” “a lot,” or “too many,” they are generally inclined to accept those statements for lack of any experience to the contrary.
Some students will be tenacious enough to recognize over time that they are capable of more than their institution’s credit cap suggests. But even for them, credit cap policies will limit their ability to move forward at a pace that is optimally challenging. I should know, because I was one of those students.
How did I get around the obstacle of credit caps? In Part II, I’ll share my story as well as my views on why the credit cap system needs to change.
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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.