Highlands University offers its students the chance to complete college sooner with less debt, thanks to having the highest percentage of 120-credit bachelor’s degree programs of any public university in New Mexico.
“The previous minimum degree requirement was 128 hours at Highlands, and our average was more than 150 credits for students who completed their bachelor’s degrees,” said Teresita Aguilar, provost and vice president of academic affairs. “With tuition and fees at approximately $4,000 per year, that’s a cost savings of $8,000 in tuition alone if students finish their degrees in four years rather than six years.”
Ninety-two percent of Highlands University’s undergraduate degrees require 120 credits to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. In spring 2014, Highlands became the second university in the state to approve a 120-credit policy. To date, only Highlands and the University of New Mexico have the policy, with the other state universities requiring more credits for degree completion.
“Graduating sooner also allows students to enter the workforce sooner, or begin advanced study in graduate or professional school sooner,” Aguilar said.
She spearheaded the 120-credit initiative in March 2014, with the university’s regents approving the policy the next month – putting Highlands on par with public universities in Colorado, Texas and Arizona that all require 120-credit degree programs.
“It’s key that this 120-credit proposal was developed in collaboration with the faculty senate, which voted 100 percent in favor of the change. Following the approval of the new policy, the faculty did an excellent job of developing degree plans that are feasible to complete in four years. These new one-page degree maps spell out course requirements for each year, giving students more clarity in what course work they need to complete to graduate in four years in the recommended sequence,” Aguilar said.
She added that strong support and collaboration from other units across campus, such as the Registrar’s Office, Office of Academic Support, and Financial Aid Office, made the 120-credit policy possible.
Fall semester 2015, Highlands started a financial incentive program for the freshmen class of 2019 to encourage timely degree completion. Each incoming freshman student that completes his or her degree in four years or less will be awarded $1,000 upon graduation.
Aguilar said that the 120-credit policy also has important implications for financial aid and how students pay for their education.
“If they follow the 120-hour, four-year degree plan, our New Mexico students are eligible for the state’s lottery scholarship for the duration of their studies. That’s huge because this scholarship pays 90 percent of their tuition. Federal financial aid also has caps for the amount of time spent in school for degree completion and requires taking courses approved for the program of study. Losing financial aid is a big reason college students accumulate excessive debt when they are in school longer,” Aguilar said.
She said a learning communities pilot project launched at Highlands fall semester 2015 holds great promise because research shows that the communities foster a sense of belonging that helps improves academic success and four-year graduation rates.
“This semester every freshman at Highlands is in one of 17 learning communities where they take two core classes together as well as a freshmen forum class. The learning community topics range from astronomy and art to biology and history,” Aguilar said.
Each learning community has a team of two professors, an instructor, an academic adviser, and a peer mentor to support 20 – 25 students.
“The learning communities are integrated into the 120-credit degree programs, and build upon Highlands’ commitment to engage, retain, and graduate more students,” Aguilar said.