15 to Finish: Why don't college students enroll in 15 or more credits?

There has been quite a storm of reaction to the recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Redefine 'full time" so students can graduate on time, paper suggests."  Complete College America is holding their annual conference and released another policy brief that endorsed the solution to the college completion problem is to simply make students take 15 credits every semester till they get done.  They do an excellent job of stating the obvious:

  • Most college students (69%) not enrolled in a schedule that leads to on-time graduation, even if they never changed majors, failed a course, or took a class they didn’t need
  • Even among “full-time” students, most (52%) actually taking fewer than 15 hours, standard course load that could lead to on-time graduation
  • At most two-year colleges, less than a third “full-time” students taking 15 or more hours
  • At four-year colleges, typically only 50 % or fewer “full-time” students enrolled in 15 hours.

Then they state the obvious consequences of such actions:

  • Taking 12 credits per term instead of 15 can add a year to a four-year degree or half a year to a two-year degree, even if students never fail a course, change majors, or take a class beyond their degree requirements.
  • Students, parents, and public financial aid programs paying more for a degree when students have to enroll in more semesters.
  • Students lose out on a year of employment and income if they spend an additional year in school.
  • Fewer students served by institutions with limited capacity—advising, parking, dormitories, etc.
  • Dropout rates are higher for students who take fewer credits.  In the 2004/2009 BPS study, 17% of students who completed 30 credits their first year dropped out without a degree by the end of six years, compared to 23% of students who completed 24-29 credits.(The difference in completion rates is even bigger, since the low-credit students are also more likely to remain enrolled without a degree.)

The simple solution, everyone takes 15 or more hours.  Or else.  From the CCA website, "Incentives [for enrollment in 15 or more credits] can be as simple as preferred parking on campus and as substantial as financial aid policies that reward credit accumulation.”  So if you don't keep up, give more financial aid to the students who are taking 15 or more and financially punish those that do not.  I looked through the CCA website and never read anything that explained why students would be so foolish to not enroll in 15 or more credits.  Readers of the article in the Chronicle provided the nuanced answer.  <Click here for a sample of their responses and my posting to a email listserv on this topic.>   Students don't have time due to working multple part-time jobs to pay for rising tuition, students bring to college credits earned elsewhere, students have family obligations, and the list goes on.  The answer is a lack of "time" and the students are smart to limit their course load to a level they can accomplish. 

I decided to dig deeper and went to the research studies the CCA was citing.  the 15 to Finish website, http://www.15tofinish.com/ contains the reports from a community college in Hawaii that has studied this issue.  <Click on this link for one of their research studies.>

Research Objective:  Impact of enrolling 15 or more credits on student performance.  First-time freshmen for the UG Community College campuses Fall 2009, 2010, 2011  Only 7.4% of the 17,960 freshmen took 15 or more credit hours in their first semester.  The average credit hour load was 10.6 hours.  Students divided into two groups:  took less than 15 or enrolled in 15 or more hours..  Each group organized by academic preparation, demographics, and academic success.

Findings of students who took 15 or more hours:

  • Higher average Compas placement test scores.
  • Were younger, tended to be recent high school graduates, and had a higher percentage with financial need met, and less likely to be an ethnic minority.
  • Performed better as measured by first semester GPA, percentage with a “B” or “C+” or higher grade average, credit completion ration above 80%, and persistence.
  • Students with higher academic preparation scores performed better academically 

The Research Study Conclusion:  “First-time students at the UH Community Colleges can successfully carry 15 credit hours.  Student success varies by academic preparation, with those students scoring higher on academic preparation preforming better…  Students taking 15 or more credits outperformed students taking fewer than 15 credits across all levels of academic preparation.  The fact that students taking 15 or more credits persist at higher rates may indicate greater student engagement.  The more important question is why so few students at the UH Community Colleges take 15 or more credits.  Analysis indicates that academic preparation is not the limiting factor.  The low percentage of students taking the higher credit load may indicate that 12 credits has become the culturally accepted norm for full-time enrollment.” 

Too bad they didn't ask the students why they did not take 15 or more.  More than half of the report are data tables that carefully document their findings.  But they did not analyze number of hours worked, number of jobs worked, and a host of other factors that help explain why students do not have time to enroll in 15 or more.  The study said the 15 or more students were younger.  I wonder about relationship status and number of dependents between the two groups.  Younger, academically prepared students with full financial aid probably do not have the financial needs and time obligations of the others.  And those that take less than 15 hours.  They number over 90 percent of the student body.  Would you not want to understand WHY?  This is the research the CCA cites as proof the answer is simple, make everyone take 15 or more credits without concern why they behave the way they do. 

It is obvious CCA is displeased with the federal government's definition of full-time status to receive Pell Grants is 12 credits.  Here is my question for the CCA, how long until you begin to lobby for raising the minimum credits to 15 to receive a Pell Grant?  It is only a matter of time.  It is such a simple answer.  Supposedly H. L. Mencken said, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."