Washington and Lee University Focused Report


2.7.1    The institution offers one or more degree programs based on at least 60 semester credit hours or the equivalent at the associate level; at least 120 semester credit hours or the equivalent at the baccalaureate level; or at least 30 semester credit hours or the equivalent at the post-baccalaureate, graduate, or professional level. If an institution uses a unit other than semester credit hours, it provides an explanation for the equivalency. The institution also provides a justification for all degrees that include fewer than the required number of semester credit hours or its equivalent unit. (Program Length)


Comments from the Report of the Reaffirmation Committee:

The Undergraduate Catalog indicates that effective with students entering in fall 2005 and later, a candidate for any undergraduate degree must present a minimum of 115 credits.  A candidate who entered earlier than fall 2004 must present a minimum of 121 credits.  The institution suggests that although its required minimum of 115 credits is less than SACS requirement of 120 semester credit hours or the equivalent at the baccalaureate level, in the most recent class, graduates earned an average of 129 credits (median 127, range 115 to 185).  Further justification for the 115 credit minimum requirement is based on the belief that while Washington and Lee uses seat time as the basic definition of credit its peer schools define course credit based on student effort and faculty supervision outside of formal class sessions, as well as class contact hours.  No evidence is provided to demonstrate that in fact this is the case. 


The 115 credits required for the Washington and Lee degree works out to be 38 courses (at an average of 3 credits each) plus one credit of PE.  The Course Catalog indicates that the value of one credit is equivalent in total time and effort to the semester hour.  Furthermore, three credits are currently defined as equivalent to class time of three 55-minute sessions (165 minutes contact/3 credit course) weekly for the 12-week terms.


Although the institution provided a list of peer institutions that have similar course equivalents required for baccalaureate degree completion, W&L has not provided sufficient analysis or evidence that 115 credits is equivalent to the 120 credits required in this core requirement at the undergraduate level.


The Law School catalog indicates that the Juris Doctor (J.D.) requires a minimum of 85 credits and is in compliance with its accrediting body, the American Bar Association.  The Master of Laws (LL.M) is generally completed in one year of professional study, consisting of 24 credits.  This program length is in keeping with what is typical among institutions offering the degree, as evidenced on the chart of hours required for the LL.M.  The data indicate an average of 23.2 hours required, with a range of 20 at Cornell to 27 at the University of Chicago.


            Washington and Lee Response:

The justification for 115 rather than 120 credits is rooted in the fact that W&L, unlike many peer institutions, still relies mainly on “classroom seat time” as the basic definition of a credit hour.  The table below shows that while W&L requires 38 courses for the baccalaureate degree, most peer liberal arts schools require fewer courses, typically 32 -34.  At these peer schools, courses meet for the same number of hours per week (three 50 - 55 minute class periods or two 80 - 85 min periods) as equivalent W&L courses, but count for more credit hours based on time-on-task outside of class in addition to formal class meeting time.


Direct comparisons of credit systems among peer institutions are informed by the following guidelines from the Williams College Registrar’s FAQ website:

“ … all courses are valued the same. …our course unit system considers all courses to be of equal weight toward completing degree requirements.  If it is necessary to convert credits on a course basis, we suggest that you consider each of our courses or projects to be the equivalent of one-ninth of a year's credit at the other school.  If, for example, the college requires 120 credits, or 30 per year, for the B.A., then each course or project would be the equivalent of 3.33 credits…”


Therefore, for 36 courses at Williams to equal 120 credit hours, each course would be valued at 3.33 credit hours even though a typical course meets for the same number of hours per week as a W&L course.  Conversely, if a W&L course were valued at 3.33 credit hours according to the Williams’ conversion guidelines, the total credit hours attributable to the 38 courses required for a W&L degree would be 126.5.


Many peer colleges in the table below require 32 courses, and if these were to meet the SACS requirement of 120 credit hours, each course would be valued at 3.75 credit hours.


Examples from institutions accredited by the Commission on Colleges include Davidson College, which requires 32 courses, that must be valued at 3.75 credit hours each to attain a total 120 credit hours, and the University of Richmond, which requires 36 courses and meets SACS requirements by establishing a set course value as equivalent to 3.5 credit hours for a total of 126 credit hours.  Centre College is an example of a SACS institution recently reaffirmed which requires 111 credits for the bachelor's degree.


In summary, W&L’s requirement of 115 credits, which translates to 38 courses exceeds the degree requirements of most peer institutions which require only 32-36 courses. Students are required to take more courses for a W&L baccalaureate degree than at other institutions. The data show that courses valued at 3 credit hours by W&L are valued at 3.33-3.75 credit hours by peers.



Additional Supporting Documentation

-Williams College credit description web site

-University of Richmond approved credit recommendation

-Centre College credit requirements web site