Student Loan Debt Comparison: Dallas College and Other Texas Two-Year Institutions


At the end of 2021, the Federal Reserve (Board of Governors, 2022) estimated the total amount of student loan debt held in the United States to be almost $1.75 trillion, making it the second-largest amount of consumer debt in the US, behind mortgage debt. While national debt has continued to rise since 2016, the U.S. Department of Education (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021) revealed that, in 2016, certificate completers left college with an average of $16,800 in debt, associate completers with an average of $20,000 in debt, and bachelor’s completers with an average of $32,300 in debt. In most instances, the amount of federal debt the average completer had was lowest if they attended a public institution (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Average Debt for Undergraduate Completers (Certificate or Degree) by Degree Level and Institution Type, Academic Year 2015-2016

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Note. U.S. degree-granting institutions grant associate or higher degrees and participate in Title IV federal financial aid programs. Includes only loans made directly to students; does not include Parent PLUS Loans or other loans made directly to parents. Constant dollars are based on the Consumer Price Index, prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, adjusted to an academic-year basis. Averages exclude students with no student loans. Data source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). See Digest of Education Statistics 2020, table 331.95. Adapted from “Average cumulative loan amount for undergraduate degree/certificate completers who ever received loans, by degree type and control of institution: Academic year 2015–16,” NCES, 2021,


Student loan debt is not problematic in all scenarios. Recent research indicates student loan debt has a positive effect on academic outcomes by providing financial security for the student (Barr et al., 2021; Black et al., 2020; Marx & Turner, 2019). Essentially, students who do not need to stress about how to afford higher education can focus on their studies, producing positive outcomes such as higher GPAs or attainment rates. However, student debt comes with several negative effects that should not be understated. Studies have linked high levels of student debt to delayed homeownership (Cooper & Wang, 2014; Mezza et al., 2020) and family formation (Kuperberg & Mazelis, 2021). Exacerbating these negative outcomes is the amount of debt necessary to reach completion, which has grown dramatically over the past four decades. A recent Pell Institute report (2022) notes the cost of college has risen 157% since 1975, while the average Pell grant received has only increased 27%. In other words, a Pell grant covered around two-thirds the cost of attendance in 1975, but in 2020 it covered about one quarter. Consequently, lower-income students, including racial and ethnic minorities, are disproportionately affected by student debt (Jiménez & Glater, 2020). Higher levels of borrowing mean those lower-income students will experience a lower long-term return on investment.

To address the broad scope of student loan debt, as well as the specific scope of student loan debt for Dallas College students, the Research Institute will release a series of briefs that examine the critical factors of student debt. Generally, each analytical brief will cover debt characteristics from 2010 through 2020 and provide analysis of observed trends. This first brief will provide a broad overview of student loan debt patterns. Each analytical brief will compare debt trends at the state level in Texas with those at Dallas College and a sample of peer institutions. Analysis will emphasize equity, with a focus on policy recommendations and a goal of identifying areas where administrators and policymakers can address financial barriers to postsecondary completion.

Data Sources

Metrics assessing student loan debt have many nuances; however, the most common measure includes loans originated by the federal government using federal Title IV funds, as well as those made through private banking or financial institutions. A broader view of debt may also include loans made directly to parents or guardians under the Parent PLUS program. Variations in data sources make comparisons between student loan reports challenging—and data definitions critical—for an accurate understanding of debt patterns. Because the focus of this brief series is on Dallas College and institutional peer trends of student debt, the primary data source will be the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). The THECB data (2022a) present the average of each completer’s student loan debt accumulated across all Texas institutions. This measure includes both federal and private sources but excludes parental loans. The population is only students who complete a program; thus, it measures neither the amount of student loan debt held by non-completers nor the percentage of students who enroll and take on debt but do not complete a program. Future briefs in this series may incorporate alternate sources to supplement THECB data, but unless otherwise noted, student debt will refer to all federal and private debt held by students who have completed a postsecondary certificate or associate degree.

State-Level Student Loan Debt

Average Amount of Debt

The THECB debt information used in this analysis is from 85 campuses from 59 public two-year institutions in Texas. Similar to increases in national averages of student debt, the average debt of a community college completer increased annually since 2010 (see Figure 2). From 2010 to 2016, average debt increased at a rate of almost 5% ($600) per year. Between 2016 and 2020, however, average debt stabilized, increasing only 1% ($151) over five years. Average debt reached its peak in 2018 at $14,815, an amount which has persisted to 2020 ($14,759). Furthermore, the percentage of graduates with any debt has decreased from 36.8% in 2014 to almost 30% in 2020, the lowest proportion in 10 years.

Figure 2
Average Debt for Completers and Percentage of Completers with Any Debt from All Public Two-Year Institutions in TX

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Note. Data Source: THECB, 2022a

Percentile measures of student debt across institutions provide insight into the distribution of debt holders. Figure 3 shows that, since 2010, debt at the 50th percentile (median debt) is consistently lower than average debt. This difference suggests that the distribution of debt for college completers is skewed such that small numbers of students are leaving two-year institutions with unusually high amounts of debt. Furthermore, the amount of debt among completers with relatively low levels of debt has increased only marginally, while the amount of debt among completers on the high end has increased substantially. Over 10 years, 5th percentile debt amounts have increased 14.5% ($289), and 10th percentile amounts have increased 19% ($511). Comparatively, 90th percentile debt amounts have increased 35% ($7,988), and 95th percentile amounts have increased 36% ($10,565). The rise in the highest debt percentiles is especially prominent compared to the smaller increase in the lowest debt percentiles. Several factors could explain this change, one being an increased need of students who rely on loans to cover costs outside of traditional tuition and fees. Another may be that college costs for higher-need students are also rising; however, much of this increase is being absorbed by grants, scholarships, and other financial support such as promise programs and free dual-credit courses. The impact of college costs and living costs on student debt will be explored in future briefs.

Figure 3
Difference in Average Debt Level for Completers of Texas Public Two-Year Institutions by Percentile

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Note. Data source: THECB, 2022a

The number of associate completers in Texas was nearly double (1.8x) the number of certificate completers in 2019 (THECB, n.d.). Disaggregating debt by achievement level (associate degree vs. certificate) shows associate degree holders are more consistent with state trends, while certificate holders display a slightly different pattern. The average debt amount of an associate degree holder increased 4.7% annually from 2010 to 2016, followed by a plateau from 2016 to 2020, and culminating at $15,647 in 2020. Average debt for certificate holders increased 7.5% annually from 2010 to 2014 but plateaued early from 2014 to 2018 at roughly $13,700. Rates then increased in both 2019 ($13,964) and 2020 ($14,478; see Figure 4).

Figure 4
Average Debt for Completers and Percentage of Completers Who Finish with Any Debt from All Public Two-Year Institutions in Texas, Disaggregated by Award Type

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Note. Data source: THECB, 2022a

Associate degree holders consistently graduate with higher amounts of debt than certificate holders (Figure 4). Associate degree debt is likely higher due to the additional time costs to complete. However, the increase in cost is not proportionate to the additional time required to complete an associate degree over a certificate. Certificates are considered in three categories: short-, medium-, and long-term. Short- and medium-term certificates require less than 2 years to complete and were 95% of total certificates earned in 2010 (Carnevale et al., 2012). For example, at Dallas College, a typical associate degree requires 60 credit hours to complete—more than double the average amount required to complete a certificate (15-55 credit hours; avg. = 27; see Appendix). Nevertheless, at the state level, associate degree holders graduated with only 8% more debt than certificate holders in 2020 (Figure 4). This inconsistency may be due to a difference in the intentions of students who pursue certificates versus those who pursue associate degrees. For example, students may seek a certificate as a steppingstone to further education or as professional development in an existing career trajectory. These alternate pathways may influence students’ willingness to take on debt. The inconsistency could also be due to variations in aid (grants, scholarships, etc.) available for certificate- and associate-seeking students. Future briefs in this series will examine cost differences in relation to debt for both groups.

Percent of Completers with Debt

While debt averages for completers from Texas public two-year institutions increased from 2010 to 2020, the overall percentage of community college completers taking on debt decreased. The percentage of students graduating with student debt rose 4.2 percentage points annually from 2010 to 2014, peaking at 36.8%, but has since declined. From 2014 to 2020, the percentage of students graduating with debt decreased 1.1 percentage points annually with 30.3% of completers leaving college with student debt in 2020 (Figure 2). Again, this trend persists generally for associate and certificate holders, of whom 28.4% and 25.3% finished with debt in 2020, respectively. The percentage of associate holders graduating with debt declined 0.9 percentage points annually, and the percentage of certificate holders graduating with debt declined 0.7 percentage points annually from 2014 (Figure 4).

Dallas College Compared to Public Two-Year Institutions Across Texas

Dallas College completers consistently leave college with higher average debt than the state average of public two-year institutions. In 2010, Dallas College completer debt was $1,100 (10.4%) more than the state average. Average debt for Dallas College completers followed the same upward trend that the state experienced between 2010 and 2016. With average student debt at $17,700 in 2016, the gap between Dallas College graduates and the state average grew to $3,100 (21.4%). This increase, around $5,600 total, represents a year-over-year increase of almost $1,000 (6.6%) in student loan debt. While the state average of student debt completers also increased during this time, the average year-over-year increase was half of that at Dallas College, $500 (5%). Following 2016, however, the state average plateaued while Dallas College had a downward trend in average debt. The amount of student debt for the average Dallas College completer dropped from the 2016 high of $17,700 to $16,600 in 2020. This is a 6.1% decrease for those four years when the state average for student debt increased by a total of around 1%. The average debt in Dallas College remains approximately $1,800 (12.7%) higher than the state average in 2020, despite decreasing over the past few years (Figure 5).

Figure 5
Average Debt for Completers and Percentage of Completers Who Finish with Any Debt, Dallas College and Texas

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Note. Data source: THECB, 2022a

Prior to 2015, the net price for Dallas College was higher than the state average (U.S. Department of Education, 2022). However, in 2015 and 2016, Dallas College made a significant decrease in net price of attendance, decreasing 38.5% to around $4,000, which remains lower than the state average of public two-year institutions. This decrease in net price is likely the primary driver in reducing the amount of student loan debt for Dallas College completers from 2016 to 2020. Focusing on ways to lower the overall cost of attendance, and the subsequent net price, provided Dallas College considerable traction on the issue of student debt. A future analytical brief showing student debt as a function of costs is forthcoming from the Research Institute.

Although average debt amounts are higher at Dallas College, completers are consistently less likely to take on debt than the average completer at Texas public two-year institutions. In 2010, 20.1% of Dallas College students graduated with debt, 12.5 percentage points lower than the state average. The percentage of public two-year students who took loans rose an average of 1 percentage point per year until beginning to fall in 2015. The percentage of completers with debt grew much faster at Dallas College, rising at a rate of 1.6 percentage points per year, and did not begin declining until 2016. From 2015 to 2020, Dallas College saw a lower percentage of completers with loans, ending at 22.3% in 2020, and averaging a decrease of 1.2 percentage points per year. Simultaneously, the state average also fell, ending at 30.2%, averaging a decrease of 1.1 percentage points per year. Though the percentage of Dallas College graduates with loans is closer to the state average in 2020 than it was in 2010, the rate remains almost 8 percentage points lower (see Figure 5).

The decrease in the percentage of completers taking any student debt follows a similar trend to that of the decrease in net price. Current research highlights the benefits of a student borrowing for their education, primarily that financial security allows students to focus on academics instead of how to pay tuition (Marx & Turner, 2019). However, it is possible that, given a lower net price for attendance, students may be able to have the best of both worlds. As the cost of attendance falls, the number of students who can complete credentials without financial assistance rises. Increasing access to state and institutional funding to lower net price can work to raise Dallas College completion rates and Texas’s ability to meet future workforce demands, both of which are key components of the state’s strategic plan for higher education.

Dallas College Compared to Two-Year Institution Peer Group

Analyzing the performance of similar institutions provides context regarding how an institution performs on key indicators (Williams June, 2022). To provide this context, the Research Institute compared student debt outcomes for completers at Dallas College to benchmark institutions. Peer institutions were identified as those in Texas’s most populous counties and/or metropolitan areas as well as any large, public two-year colleges that serve the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. Alamo Colleges District (Bexar County), Austin Community College District (CCD; Travis County), Houston Community College (Harris County), El Paso Community College (El Paso County), Tarrant County College (Tarrant County), and Collin College (Collin County) make up this group of functionally equivalent peers.

Dallas College and its peer institutions exhibit a range of average debt amounts for completers. Houston Community College completers have the highest average debt ($19,700 in 2020), far surpassing the state average of $14,800. El Paso Community College has the lowest average debt levels, with completers averaging $11,500 in 2020. In 2011, Houston and El Paso had the highest single-year percent increase/decrease in student debt among the peer institutions, perhaps putting them on the trajectory toward their highest/lowest amounts of debt, respectively. Since 2016, Houston Community College debt grew the most in terms of raw dollars, increasing $1,100 (5.9%). Alamo CCD debt had the highest percentage increase in average debt, increasing 6.2% ($900). Conversely, Collin College decreased almost $3,000 (17.0%), and El Paso Community College decreased approximately $1,600 (11.9%). As noted above, Dallas College also experienced a significant decline in student debt during this time, decreasing almost $1,100 (6.1%).

Figure 6
Average Amount of Debt for Completers and Percentage of Completers Who Finish with Debt by Institution

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Note. Data source: THECB, 2022a

Variance is also evident among the percentage of students graduating with debt from benchmark institutions. Between 2010 and 2020, Austin CCD consistently had the highest percentage of completers with student debt. Despite decreasing by 5.8 percentage points to 37.2%, Austin students are still the most likely to graduate with debt. Between 2010 and 2014, Dallas College had the lowest rate of student debt. From 2017 to 2020, 20.2% of El Paso Community College graduates left with student debt, followed closely by Dallas College at 22.3%. Five of the seven benchmark institutions experienced decline beginning in 2014. Dallas College reached its highest mark (28.1%) in 2015 before declining, while Alamo did so in 2017 (34.4%). Starting in 2017, each of the institutions trended downward overall, though Alamo and Collin increased from 2019 to 2020 of 0.4 and 4.1 percentage points, respectively.

In comparison to similar institutions, Dallas College has fewer students taking out loans; additionally, the 5-year trend of decreasing debt amounts for completers is something that many other institutions have not experienced. Tuition assistance programs such as Dallas County Promise began supporting students in fall of 2018 and may contribute to further success in lowering student debt without creating financial burdens. If so, Dallas College should continue to see improvement in both the percent of students graduating debt-free and the average amount of debt for its completers. Both Houston Community College and Alamo CCD have promise programs that were recently implemented (Get Schooled, 2021); future data will help assess the value of these programs in terms of the impact on student debt.

The average amount of debt students accrue, and the likelihood of incurring debt, are valuable measures. However, taken individually, they present an incomplete picture of the student debt environment. These measures track an overall amount of student debt that has risen to precarious levels. In 2020, the state average debt for a completer at a public two-year institution was $14,760, with 30.25% of completers having debt. Thus, for every 1,000 completers in Texas, the student loan burden grows around $4.5 million.1 El Paso Community College is the lowest institution in terms of both average debt and percentage with debt; therefore, its graduates contribute the least toward the overall student loan debt burden, $2.3 million per 1,000 completers (see Figure 7). While Dallas College consistently has higher amounts of debt than the state average, a much lower percentage of its students graduate with debt. This equates to a significantly lower impact on the overall debt burden. For every 1,000 Dallas College completers, the per capita debt burden is only $3.7 million, approximately $800,000 less than the state average. In contrast, Houston Community College and Austin CCD contribute the most to overall debt at $6.2 and $6.5 million, respectively. Collin College, despite having one of the lowest average debt levels ($14,000) in Texas, contributes slightly more to overall student debt because of its higher percentage of students graduating with debt (32.1%).

Figure 7
Amount of Debt Contributed to Total System by Institution, Per 1,000 Completers

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Note. Data source: THECB, 2022a; Research Institute calculations: (average debt * percent with debt) * 1,000.

The amount of per capita student debt generated at an institution is the result of multiple factors, some of which the institution can mitigate and others which are beyond its control. For example, El Paso Community College has some control over tuition rates and thus has consistently kept tuition increases low. Lower costs associated with a degree contribute directly to lower average student debt and less students taking any debt. However, El Paso County consistently has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, with 1 out of 5 residents living in poverty (Texas Workforce Commission, n.d.). High poverty rates tend to correlate with a lower cost of living, which in turn drives down the cost of attendance. Conversely, Harris County has lower poverty rates (around 1 in 10 in poverty), which may be due in part to having many advanced manufacturing and energy industries employing skilled workers with middle-class wages (Harris County Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity, 2017). Local employer demand for skilled workers may drive up costs of further education, reaching equilibrium at a higher overall price point.

Lowering only one aspect of student debt limits possible solutions and may not mitigate the problem. As a hypothetical example, if, across the board, Texas manages to lower the average debt of each graduate by $1,000, this would be a positive outcome. However, if the percentage of students borrowing simultaneously rose 3%, per capita debt levels would still increase by around $110, or $110,000 per 1,000 completers.2 On the other hand, decreasing state levels of students graduating with debt by 2% but with the average debt rising by $1,500, would still increase per capita debt by $128, or $128,000 for every 1,000 completers.3 The latter scenario should be of particular focus, as the above analysis shows fewer students are borrowing, but those who do are borrowing more (see Figures 1 and 2).


At the state level, the stabilization of average per-graduate debt accompanied by the steady decrease in percentage of graduates accruing any debt suggests that, overall, student debt is decreasing at Texas public two-year institutions. Unfortunately, it is also likely that some populations are exhibiting less promising debt patterns. Certificate holders, for example, experienced an increase in average debt in both 2019 and 2020, which counteracts the slow but steady decline in percent of graduates leaving with debt. Additionally, percentile debt amounts indicate that a small portion of graduates with debt are taking on larger loans. Further exploration into who these students are and why they require such large loans is required.

At the institution level, Houston Community College and Austin CCD are showing higher average debt and/or larger percentages of students with debt. Conversely, El Paso Community College seems to be the best-case scenario: lowest in both dollar amounts and percent with debt. Institutions such as Dallas and Collin Colleges occupy a middle ground. However, the increased amount of average debt at Dallas College and the recent increase in percent graduating with debt at Collin College remain concerns. The research presented here simply conveys a broad overview of the student debt environment for Texas and cannot indicate best- or worst-case scenarios for individual students. A more holistic assessment into the context of each institution and its surrounding economic region is necessary to provide a more nuanced and accurate picture. Factors such as local poverty rates, cost of living, and fields of study need to be addressed to add clarity to the student debt picture.

Next Steps

It is critical for policymakers in Texas to capitalize on the progress being made in terms of lowering the percentage of students borrowing at public two-year institutions. However, this must be balanced with a simultaneous decline in the amount that students borrow. Research following the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on workers shows that educational attainment had positive impacts on individuals' economic and employment outcomes (Research Institute, 2022b). Furthermore, student loan debt can significantly lower the long-term return on investment of a college education (Research Institute, 2022a). It is therefore critical that colleges, particularly public two-year institutions, become even more affordable. Any method of increasing accessibility with higher levels of student loan debt is untenable. The Research Institute intends to explore further avenues through which policymakers can equitably reduce college costs and, therefore, the need for student debt.

Collaborative programs such as Dallas County Promise, which covers the gap between need-based financial aid and the cost of tuition for a period of time or the completion of a degree, are critical elements in addressing student debt. For Dallas College, it is vital that administrators continue to drive down the amount of debt completers acquire. One possible option is to provide resources and assistance to students in discovering, and ultimately completing, a pathway suited to their educational goals. Often, students have not fully committed to educational and employment pathway goals, making them far more difficult to achieve. The College’s Learner Care model with one point of contact—a student success coach—is an excellent foundation. As Dallas College begins to implement success coaches and advising towards more structured academic and technical pathways, administrators will monitor and evaluate the program’s success regularly, seeking areas for continuous improvement. Programs like these can help bridge student desired outcomes with corresponding courses, often beginning in high school, potentially lessening the number of excess credit hours taken and lowering the overall financial need for students. Dallas College also offers students access to workshops with financial literacy coaches. However, these programs are referred to as “Financial Aid Help,” which students may confuse with obtaining financial aid sources as opposed to providing information to increase their overall financial literacy.

While levels of student loan debt remain at troublesome levels, future research can indicate clearer paths to success. For students, success means increased access to higher education without higher financial strains, and for Texas, success means a stronger, higher-skilled workforce to meet its workforce demands. The next brief in the Research Institute’s series on debt will assess demographic and other student characteristics. Additionally, this analytical brief’s conclusions, along with future work, will be available in an interactive dashboard format, allowing the reader to examine multiple factors among institutions and their students.

  • 1 Calculated as Texas 2020 average debt * 2020 percentage with debt * 1000; $14760 * 0.3025 = $4,465 per capita ($4.47M per 1,000).
  • 2 Calculated as Texas (2020 average debt – $1000) * (2020 percentage with debt + 3%); $13760 * 0.3325 = $4,575 per capita (Difference: New per capita $4,575 - current per capita $4,465 = $110).
  • 3 Calculated as Texas (2020 average debt + $1500) * (2020 percentage with debt - 2%); $16260 * 0.2825 = $4,593 per capita Difference: New per capita $4,593 - current per capita $4,465 = $128).

Barr, A., Bird, K., & Castleman B. (2021). The effect of reduced student loan borrowing on academic performance and default: Evidence from a loan counseling experiment. Journal of Public Economics, 202, 104493.

Black, S., Denning, J., Dettling, L., Goodman, S., & Turner, L. (2020). Taking it to the limit: Effects of increased student loan availability on attainment, earnings, and financial well-being (Working paper 27658). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. (2022, April 7). Student loans owned and securitized [Graph].

Carnevale, A., Rose, S., & Hanson, A. (2012). Certificates: Gateway to gainful employment and college degrees. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Cooper, D., & Wang, J. C. (2014). Student loan debt and economic outcomes [Current Policy Perspectives Report No. 14-7]. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Get Schooled. (2021, December 16). 5 promise programs for free college tuition in Texas.

Harris County Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity. (December 6, 2017). Harris County economic highlights, 2017.

Jiménez, D., & Glater, J. D. (2020). Student debt is a civil rights issue: The case for debt relief and higher education reform. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 55(131).

Kuperberg, A., & Mazelis, J. M. (2022). Social norms and expectations about student loans and family formation. Sociological Inquiry, 92(1), 90-126.

Marx, B., & Turner, L. (2019). The benefits of borrowing: Evidence on student loan debt and community college attainment. Education Next 19(1), 70-77.

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Table A1
Credits Required for Dallas College Certificate Programs

Minimum Credits Required to Complete Number of Active Certificate Programs at Dallas College with Minimum Credit Requirement
15-19 67
20-24 52
25-29 40
30-34 28
35-39 21
40-44 17
45-49 10
50-54 6
55-59 1

Weighted average: 27 credits required to complete a Certificate at Dallas College as of May 5, 2010