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How Reducing Curricular Complexity Can Help Boost Graduation Rates

By Hayden Hoopes

College students do a lot of things. They eat, sleep, and sometimes even study. In addition, students participate in a variety of university-run co-curricular activities that allow them to have unique educational and social opportunities outside of the classroom. At Utah State University, these activities include Connections (the week-long first-year course that introduces students to the university), Residence Life, the Writing Center, the Student Nutrition Access Center, club and sporting events, and many other events. Each of these co-curricular activities is intentionally designed by the university to help students become more integrated with the collegiate experience and remain enrolled in their academic programs until graduation. For this reason, co-curricular programs are widely supported and participation in all kinds of events is frequently encouraged by university leaders.

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Co-curricular activities are great and are very important contributors to student success. However, because co-curriculars have been a focus point in higher education for the past 50 years, the effect of actual curricular activities on graduation rates has not been examined. Such an investigation would involve studying the literal arrangement of courses that make up a degree program to determine its effects on graduation rates.

It seems logical that majors with fewer prerequisite courses would be easier to graduate from than majors with many prerequisite courses. This is because fewer prerequisites give students more scheduling flexibility and failure-tolerance in case a class needs to be retaken. However, prerequisites are often necessary in programs that require a large foundational knowledge, such as engineering. There needs to be a balance in the number of prerequisites in each academic program that 1) prepares students adequately for their careers and 2) allows them to progress easily through the curriculum.

To solve this problem, a theoretical framework called Curricular Complexity was developed. This framework allows administrators to quantify individual programs based on the organizational structure of their prerequisite and corequisite courses and assigns each program a complexity score in the process. In this manner, programs with many prerequisites are assigned a high complexity score, while programs with fewer prerequisites are assigned a low complexity score. This complexity score can then be used in a variety of analyses at Utah State University.

I recently completed one of these analyses while examining the effects of curricular complexity on graduation rates at Utah State University. After obtaining complexity scores for each academic program at the institution, I used logistic regression to determine if a basic trend existed between complexity scores and graduation rates. Here’s what I learned:

As curricular complexity goes up, graduation rates go down.

The initial observation of the following graph follows a trendline that indicates that as complexity score increases, the percent of students who graduate from the program decreases. In this graph, students were plotted as blue points either on the top of the graph (if they graduated) or the bottom of the graph (if they did not graduate). They were oriented horizontally by their complexity score (x-axis) and a trend line was plotted against the percentage of students who either graduated or not (y-axis). The result was a negatively sloped trendline that demonstrates the general trend for students in more complex academic programs to graduate at a lesser rate. In contrast, students in less complex programs tend to graduate at a higher rate.

Image of curricular complexity

Prerequisite courses cause increased curricular complexity.

The cause of higher complexity scores is prerequisite courses. While often necessary for building a foundational knowledge, prerequisites also serve to block students from progressing towards graduation. When degree programs have long prerequisite chains that prolong access to higher level courses, students have less flexibility in their schedules and many times are forced to postpone graduation if any changes to the plan are made. This would include a change of major, failure of a course, or transferring from another university. Program administrators know that less flexibility is a problem for students, but they must also ensure that each program provides sufficient foundation knowledge to students to help them excel later on in their studies and in their careers. Thus, program administrators face the difficult task of determining how to both reduce curricular complexity and maintain high standards of attainment for their students.

Re-evaluating prerequisite courses can lead to decreased curricular complexity and, therefore, higher graduation rates.

Fortunately, programs don’t need to get rid of perquisites to decrease their complexity, but rather simply reorganized. As noted by Heileman et al., two engineering programs with identical accreditation will experience vastly different graduation rates, even though both programs teach the same courses (2018). The difference between them lies in their curriculum structure, where the less complex program (with more graduations) combines, eliminates, or rearranges prerequisites to allow the program to be more forgiving and easier to manage for students. Likewise, program administrators at Utah State University should re-evaluate their programs to see where choke points and prerequisite requirements seem to impede student progression. As they do this, administrators will find ways to reorganize the prerequisites in a way that is failure-tolerant and flexible, and that allows students to graduate from the program at a higher rate while still providing them with the foundational knowledge they will need in their careers.


Heileman, G. L., Abdallah, C. T., Slim, A., & Hickman, M. (2018). Curricular analytics: A framework for quantifying the impact of curricular reforms and pedagogical innovations.

  • Degree Completion & Student Success

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