The adage “less is more” could well describe a big change that the University of New Mexico is making in its graduation requirements. While it may now take fewer hours to earn that degree, the quality of that learning experience should be higher.

UNM is consolidating the amount of coursework needed to complete a bachelor’s degree. Schools and colleges throughout the university are re-examining degree requirements in cooperation with the Office of Academic Affairs. The UNM Faculty Senate has formally endorsed the idea of a minimum requirement of 120 hours to complete a degree, and two degree programs have already moved to comply with the change: The Honors College and the University College.

The new degree requirement of a minimum 120 hours is a major component in a university wide effort to increase student success. It is partially designed to minimize what is known in academic circles as ‘credit creep’: an upward spiraling of additional credit hours required to earn a degree. Currently, UNM’s bachelor’s degree requirements range from 128 to 140 credit hours, depending upon the program offering the degree. By May 2015, the new policy will allow these programs to reduce their requirements to 120 credit hours, but only if they can do so while maintaining program quality.

“Based on our research, we believe lowering the number of hours required to earn a degree will concentrate the focus of our programs and make the student experience stronger,” said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Chaouki Abdallah. “It benefits the students by helping them graduate in four years with a manageable course load, while making their degree more affordable by keeping the lottery scholarship from expiring and lowering the overall cost of tuition.  We continue to rely on the academic programs and the faculty to monitor and adjust the quality of a UNM education.”

Associate Provost for Curriculum Greg Heileman compiled a report for the Provost’s office to assess the impact of lowering the required hours. In it, he learned that the State of Florida was the first to address the problem in 1995 when state policy changed the mandated degree minimum to 120 hours, with some exceptions.  Florida soon found that led to more students completing degrees.  Gradually other states have followed with similar results. 

A report released in 2012 by Complete College America, a private nonprofit with a mission to increase the number of Americans with college degrees, surveyed public university requirements for degrees and found that “Most four-year public institutions now require 120 credit hours for most of their degree programs.”

It also found that “10 percent of the institutions require 125 credit hours or more.”  That report suggested that institutions with greater completion requirements may have some financial incentive to do so.  That was true in New Mexico until recently when the state higher education funding formula was altered to place emphasis on degree competition rather than number of credit hours earned.

Articles from “Inside Higher Ed,” an online publication, outline current efforts by Indiana and Maryland that focus on moving students more efficiently through the university system. The effort in Maryland is statewide and reaches into the K-12 system with incentives such as dual enrollment.

UNM launched a dual enrollment system more than two years ago. New Mexico High School students can take university courses online and receive both high school and university academic credit. That allows high school students to take courses not offered at their school or to take some of the UNM core curriculum courses as they complete their high school degree.

There is no formal Department of Higher Education policy in New Mexico that guides universities in determining the number of hours required for a degree, but the Higher Learning Commission, which is the accrediting agency for UNM, recommends 120 hours for bachelor’s degrees. In addition, many professional accrediting agencies, while not specifying a minimum degree requirement, have accredited highly-ranked programs with 120 credit hours.  “We see this as a minimum number of hours needed to complete a degree,” Heileman said.  “Students who want to push more deeply into specific areas of the curriculum will continue to have that opportunity, but we also want to provide a roadmap for students who need to complete their degree as quickly as possible.”

Historically the pathway to a degree has not always been a straight road, even for determined students with definite goals. This chart from Heileman’s report, broken down by Schools and Colleges shows how many UNM students take additional credit hours on their way to graduation.

There are many factors that can prompt students to take additional credit hours.  According to one U.S. Department of Education study, “Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories 1992-2000,” eight and a half percent of all undergraduate course grades are withdrawals or no-credit repeats. Those occur when students choose to withdraw from a course or choose to take it over again in order to receive a higher grade. Another U.S. Dept. of Education study, “Beginning Postsecondary Students 2004/2009,” shows 23 percent of students report repeating a course for a higher grade during the first three years of college. A U.S. Dept. of Education transcript study shows “F” grades or “no pass” grades make up about four and a half percent of all grades.

As the cost of tuition has risen, UNM has recognized the importance of assisting students in finding a more direct route to their goals while maintaining the quality of their educational experience. The goal of this initiative is to be more effective in graduating well-prepared students, but it will also lead to a more efficient path to graduation. In addition to limiting the number of hours required for a degree, UNM is increasing the quality and amount of advising efforts, including providing actual degree maps to help students understand semester by semester what courses critical to their major should be taken. Those maps are available at:

UNM’s current graduation rate for undergraduates is 48 percent in six years. The university’s goal is a graduation rate of 60 to 65 percent. Provost Abdallah is tracking graduation rates closely, pointing out that for every 30 students who complete their degrees the graduation rate rises one percent.  The focus on increased graduation rates is a formal university goal set as part of the UNM 2020 plan.