How colleges encourage students to take 15 credits

Most students take 12 credits per semester when they really need 15 to graduate on time

Colleges and universities are encouraging students to take 15 credits per semester in an effort to help them graduate on time, Jon Marcus reports for the Hechinger Report.

The 12-credit conundrum  

Most bachelor's degrees require 120 credits, which amounts to 15 credits each semester over four years, but most students only take 12 per semester.

As a result, on-time graduation rates are lagging. Only 5% of community college students with two-year degrees graduate on time, while about 36% of students at four-year private and flagship public colleges and universities do so. Nineteen percent of students at non-flagship four-year institutions graduate on time.

"From the time you select in your first semester to take 12 credits, you are already on a five-year plan," says Blake Johnson, spokesperson for Complete College America. "There's no way that those 12 credits will add up [in four years] to the 120 credits you need for a bachelor's degree."

But a number of barriers prevent many students from taking more than 12 credits per semester:

  • Advisors may encourage students to pace themselves by taking fewer classes;
  • Many colleges and universities charge students extra for exceeding 12 credits;
  • Most state financial aid programs only require students to take 12 credits;
  • Students may be shut out of courses required for their majors;
  • Students may be unable to handle taking more than 12 credits; and
  • The maximum Pell Grant award allows for no more than 12 credits, and students cannot use Pell money for summer courses.

In addition, students may also fall behind when certain majors require more than 120 credits for graduation, or if they change majors during their college careers.  

"The culture of education is, 12 hours is full-time," says Risa Dickson, vice president for academic affairs in the University of Hawaii (UH) system. "But the math doesn't add up."

The costs of not graduating on time, however, certainly add up. According to estimates by Complete College America , every additional year an undergraduate spends in college costs an average of $68,153 in extra fees, living expenses, and tuition, as well as lost income.  

UH pushes students to take 15 credits 

UH is taking on a new initiative called "15-to-Finish," which aims to push more students to take 15 credit hours each semester so they have a better chance of graduating on time.

How to finish in four: Supporting on-time graduation for low-income students

When the program launched in 2012, UH's four-year graduation rate was less than 20%, far below the national average. By last year, UH increased the graduation rate to 28%, and the system is on track to reach 40% on the Manoa campus. The proportion of students completing at least 15 credits each semester of freshman year has also increased from 49% to 55%.

The university found that students taking 15 credits get better grades and are less likely to drop out than their peers taking 12, regardless of measures such as high school rank and SAT scores.

"We recognize that not every student can take 15 credits, but we do think there's utility in telling students what happens if you choose not to," Johnson says.

More systems follow UH's lead

Institutions in 22 states are experimenting with some form of the 15-to-Finish model, including:

  • Colorado;
  • Illinois;
  • Kentucky;
  • Missouri;
  • Nevada;
  • Oregon; and
  • Tennessee.

Other attempts to help students graduate on time include:

  • South Dakota's scholarship for students who complete 30 credits each academic year;
  • Temple University's "Fly in 4" campaign, which pays students up to $2,000 if they work no more than 15 hours each week and follow guidance to help them graduate in four years; and
  • Texas' "B-on-Time" program, which offers complete forgiveness of state-issued loans to undergraduates who complete their bachelor's degrees in four years with at least a "B" average.

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) adopted the 15-to-Finish model in 2012, which led to the proportion of students successfully completing 15 credits each semester increasing from 28% to 64%.

However, the system is not stacked in all students' favor. IUPUI found that students who were able to take 15 credits each semester are more likely to:

  • Be female;
  • Be more academically prepared;
  • Be wealthier;
  • Have fewer outside commitments; and
  • Live on campus.

Some critics also argue that college is a period of exploration and should not be rushed. "That's what college is about," Dickson says. "But that doesn't mean that students should be doing it for six or seven years" (Marcus, Hechinger Report, 2/17).


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