The changes come as the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board meets this week to discuss new ways to streamline the college pipeline and make it more efficient and affordable at a time of shrinking budgets and cuts in financial aid.
Those goals are in line with President Obama's call for more Americans to earn degrees or certificates so that, by 2020, the United States can regain its distinction of having the world's highest proportion of college graduates.
The state's higher-education commissioner, Raymund A. Paredes, says the new requirement for students to file degree plans should help improve college-completion rates in Texas, where 31 percent of residents ages 25 to 64 hold an associate degree or higher. That compares with 38 percent nationally.
"There's a lot of research at the national level indicating that the sooner students make up their minds, the more likely they are to graduate," he said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
Under House Bill 3025, all students enrolled in associate-degree or bachelor's-degree programs at public colleges or universities will be required to file a degree plan within two regular semesters after completing 45 credit hours of coursework. Students will not be able to receive an official transcript until they file a plan.
Vincent Tinto, a professor of education at Syracuse University and one of the nation's leading experts on college completion, says degree-completion plans help students focus their studies earlier.
"It's a good idea, but being able to develop and staff an advising system, especially in a community college that serves so many students who attend part time and sometimes attend with no degree expectation, is a challenge," he adds.
Awarding Retroactive Degrees
While well over half of Texas' first-year students start out in two-year colleges, with many intending to transfer to four-year institutions, most drop out before receiving a bachelor's degree. The state has rolled out a number of strategies, including peer mentors and Web-based advising, to try to increase the number of successful transfers.
The new law provides another strategy by setting up a way to award transfer students retroactive degrees. Universities will contact students who have earned at least 30 semester credit hours of lower-division coursework and at least 90 credit hours total. If the students give their approval, the university will send their transcripts to the lower-division institution, which could be a public junior, state, or technical college, for review to determine whether they are eligible for an associate degree.
Texas Tech University is among the four-year institutions that already helps students earn retroactive degrees. Students who enter from partner community colleges can transfer credits received at Texas Tech back to their community college to complete a two-year degree.
Kerri Ford just learned this week that she had earned an associate degree from South Plains College, a two-year institution where she had attended one class a semester for about a decade while working and raising a child.
Ms. Ford, 38, works full time in institutional research at Texas Tech University, where she is continuing to take a class a semester. She has 14 courses to go before she completes her bachelor's degree. "Having the associate degree is a huge boost and motivating factor," she says.
Retroactively awarding degrees isn't a new idea, but Texas is believed to be one of the first states requiring universities to do so.
Reaching Out to Dropouts
The Higher Education Coordinating Board is also looking at ways to encourage a "two plus two" model in which more students start out in community colleges, transfer to four-year institutions, and finish bachelor's degrees within four years. Board officials contend that students who transfer to a regional branch of a university could come close to getting a four-year degree for $10,000—a goal Gov. Rick Perry has asked the coordinating board to take on.
As part of a separate effort to recruit college dropouts, the coordinating board is mailing letters to students who completed at least 90 semester credit hours but never graduated from college.
The program, which will include flexible scheduling options and advice on balancing work and family obligations, will assign students to mentors like Annabel Marquez, who graduated in May from the University of North Texas after spending her first two years at Brookhaven College, a two-year college in Dallas. Ms. Marquez, who dropped out of community college in 2002 after one semester because she couldn't afford to continue, ended up re-enrolling five years later while working full time. Next month, she'll begin work on an M.B.A. "I'll be able to help students understand what they have to give up to be completely dedicated to their education," she says.
When House Bill 3025 was being debated, the coordinating board supported a version that would have required the board to work with the state's colleges to develop a common course-numbering system and a curriculum that would readily transfer from one college to another. That provision, aimed at reducing the number of courses students had to repeat when they transferred, was defeated in the final compromise version signed by Governor Perry.
Opponents of the defeated provision argued that the required face-to-face advising process would bog down the registration process. A bill analysis by the House Research Organization summarized the opposition by saying "it could create a registration logjam as institutions attempted to get hundreds or thousands of students registered each semester. For every student who decided to take a course that was not on his or her degree plan, or decided to change the degree plan, institutions would have to stop the registration process for those students until they could be personally advised."
Other states have passed measures to try to increase completion rates. The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, for instance, tracks students' progress as they meet a series of milestones, including improving preparation for college-level work and completing college math courses. Colleges receive financial awards based on how their students' achievements improve from year to year.