Advising community college students to ease into their first year with a lighter academic load does more harm than good, according to a new report from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University and Complete College America (CCA).
Some academic advisors at community colleges believe first-year students benefit from taking less than a full academic load, but going slow only delays students' time to graduation. CCRC and CCA found that students who enroll in 15 credits their first semester and 30 credits annually acquire more credits throughout their time in college and have a much greater likelihood of graduating than their peers who enroll in 12 credits.
Community college students in particular are often encouraged to take 12 credits their first semester so that they can gradually ramp up while meeting the minimum requirements to be eligible for federal financial aid. However, associate degrees generally require 60 credits and bachelor's degrees require 120, meaning that students who don't take full course loads are unlikely to graduate on time.
"Advisors think they're helping students by recommending that they ease into college and take fewer credits. This study finds that this strategy isn't doing students any favors; quite the opposite is true," says paper co-author Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at CCRC. "Students who start slow don't pick up the pace later."
Finish in four: Supporting on-time graduation for low-income students
There is a stark difference between students who take on full course loads and those who do not. CCA recent published a paper that found community college students who earn at least 30 credits in their first year have a 62% on-time graduation rate, compared with a 43% on-time graduation rate for those who earn between 24 and 29 credits, and a 27% on-time graduation rate for those who earn between 12 and 23 credits.
On-time graduation rates are particularly low among Pell Grant recipients. The rate for community college students who began college in 2008 was 7%, compared with 5% for Pell students. Meanwhile, just 10% of Pell students earn at least 30 credits in their first year.
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CCA, which has advocated for improved graduation rates on the state and campus levels, is now turning its attention to federal policy that prevents low-income students from timely graduation. CCA argues that because Pell Grants fund a maximum of 12 credits per semester or 24 credits annually, students in the program have little incentive to take on full course loads. And students who take longer to graduate only rack up more debt and lost workplace income in the process.
"Enrollment in 12 credits per term has become the default for many advisors and aid counselors, and consequently, the fulltime students they serve," CCA stated in its report. "The decision to use 12 credits as full-time has created a ceiling rather than a floor, thus exacerbating the problem and causing ramifications far beyond the Pell program."
CCA is advocating for a new "on-time" enrollment status that would fund full- and part-time Pell recipients completing 30 credits each year. Reinstating summer Pell Grants, which allow part-time students to earn they credits they need while employed, is key to the proposal (Bradley, Community College Week, 8/18).
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