The time has come for a Connecticut college credit bank

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In this budget-challenged environment, college students in Connecticut are being particularly stressed. State subsidies are being cut. Reliance on student loans is increasing. All the while, those of us in higher education spend too much effort “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

It is time to find real solutions to systematic problems in higher education. We must revisit what we can — and what we should — do to support our students. And we must think big.

One issue we must address is the total cost of a degree, not just the tuition. Even many of the traditional college students graduating this spring have taken longer than four years to complete their bachelor’s degrees, which can substantially drive up the cost of those degrees. According to the College Board, a year of college in the United States averages $60,000 or more, including living and other expenses — and that doesn’t include earnings a student loses by postponing the start of a career.

So why do traditional students take more than four years to graduate? One challenge is simple math. A typical bachelor’s degree requires 120 credits. Over eight semesters, that’s an average of 15 credits per semester — a hefty load for any student, especially if they’re also juggling a part-time job to help meet expenses. Students who don’t take that average course load only have two options if they want to graduate in four years: early-college classes in high school or summer courses.

Here’s another challenge facing today’s students. Colleges often do not offer all classes required for graduation when students need them. This becomes a bigger problem when students change majors, transfer schools or need higher-level courses that usually have much smaller enrollments.

These small classes — whether they’re on campus or online — are loss-leaders for colleges. In economic terms, such a class can be thought of as a “perishable.” If seats in that class are not used when available, they are a lost resource. Many institutions simply cannot afford to offer these smaller, higher-level classes very often. Moreover, the college experience in these very small classes may suffer. Students often learn best from a diverse array of viewpoints, as well as from a great teacher. Or if, like Goodwin College, they do offer them — and not just during the traditional “school year” but all calendar year long — they do so at great expense to the institution.

It’s time that all Connecticut colleges — private and public — consider collaborating on a solution to this challenge. We should all participate in a statewide “college credit bank.”

Here’s how a college credit bank would work. Let’s say a student is attending a college participating in the statewide credit bank. If that student is trying to graduate on time but needs a course not being offered at his or her home school, he or she could search for that course at any college in the state. Receiving institutions would only accept students when they have available space. There would be no exchange of tuition between schools. So there’s no out-of-pocket cost for the institutions, but significant savings in time (and money) for our students.

The Hartford Consortium of Higher Education, which includes 11 public and private colleges and universities, has had a similar arrangement for decades, successfully run by registrars of each member institution, with no other overhead.

I’ve read about recent negotiations around the number of sections of a course an individual faculty member should teach. What matters more is the number of students each faculty member teaches. It is important not to overwork faculty, but negotiating over sections instead of students misses the point. Three or four sections with 20-30 students in each will always be more economical than five sections with eight students in each.

To do this, we in higher education must look beyond our traditional differences. It cannot matter anymore if we are public or private, a research or teaching institution, union or non-union. If we cannot individually offer all the courses students need at all the right times, we need to collaborate to better serve our students. We are all facing a difficult economy. We must seek solutions that unite us despite our differences.

Our students are counting on our leadership.

Mark E. Scheinberg is president of Goodwin College, a non-profit college that aligns career-focused programs to address in-demand employment opportunities.

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