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By Paul Bradley  /  
2016 August 18 - 10:29 am

Speeding It Up

Advocates Say Full Academic Load Is Key to On-Time Graduation

Advocates Say Full Academic Load Is Key to On-Time Graduation

Academic counselors at community colleges might think they are doing their charges a kindness by advising a go-slow approach for the first year of college. It stands to reason that taking on a less-than-full academic load might help new students get their feet wet and ultimately earn a degree.

But a growing body of evidence suggests that starting slow harms rather than helps students. College students who enroll in 15 credits in their first semester, and 30 credits a year, accumulate more credits over the course of their college careers and are much more likely to graduate than those students who initially enroll in just 12 credits, according to a recent study from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“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,” said CCRC’s Davis Jenkins, who co-authored the paper. “Students who start slow don’t pick up the pace later.”

The problem is especially acute at community colleges. Students often are advised to take 12 credits in their first semester, allowing them to ease into college work but still meet the minimum to be considered full-time for federal financial aid.

But because associate degrees generally require 60 credits and bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits, students need higher course loads to have any hope of graduating on time.

Those students who earn 15 credits that first year fare far better in the long term than students who earn only 12, the CCRC found.

The report was released in conjunction with Complete College America, which recently completed its 15 to Finish Policy Institute held in Minneapolis. At the institute, state policy makers and higher education leaders from around the country shared information on 15 to Finish campaigns and highlighted state- and campus-level policies enabling and encouraging students to increase their credit accumulation.

Complete College America (CCA), a non-profit that advocates for higher graduation rates, asserts that the fewer credits a student takes in their critical first year of college, the less likely they are to graduate on time.

A paper recently published by the group found that community college students who earn 30 or more credits in their first year graduate on time at a 62 percent rate. For students who earn between 24 and 29 credits, the on-time graduation rate is 43 percent. Students who earn 12 to 23 credits in their first year graduate at a 27 percent rate.

The CCA also found that while ontime graduation rates are low for all students, they are much lower for Pell Grant recipients. Among community college students who started college in 2008, for example, the overall on-time graduation rate was just 7 percent. For Pell Grant recipients, the rate was 5 percent. Only 10 percent of Pell Grant recipients earn 30 or more credits in their first year.

Not earning 30 credits is practically a guarantee that a student will not graduate on time, or perhaps at all, said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.

“Students who take less than 15 credits a semester are already on the five-year plan for their bachelor’s degree and the three-year plan for their associate degree,” Jones said. “This (CCRC) report adds to the evidence that taking 15 credits a semester increases students’ likelihood of graduating and saves them money in the process. Time is the enemy of college completion.”

CCA is spearheading a national stateby-state effort to prod more students into graduating on time through its 15 to Finish initiative. Currently, seven states and 116 campuses nationwide have launched 15 to Finish campaigns.

But while CCA so far has been focused primarily on state- and campus-level policies that enable and encourage students to increase their credit accumulation, it recently expanded its effort by shining a new spotlight on an iconic federal policy that it blames for poor on-time graduation rates.

The federal Pell Grant program was created in 1972 to ensure access to higher education for low-income students. The federal government spent $31.4 billion on Pell Grants in fiscal year 2015. It is considered a bedrock of American higher education policy.

Yet while millions of students have benefited from Pell Grants, CCA argues that its structure and rules actually act as a disincentive for on-time graduation. That’s because Pell, by law, funds a maximum of 12 credits a semester, or 24 credits a year.

“Current Pell structure does not incentivize on-time completion and can increase financial hardship,” the CCA report said. “By limiting maximum Pell funding to 24 credits per year, students are automatically on a two-and-a-half-year plan for associate degree completion and a five-year plan for bachelor’s degree completion. Every additional year it takes to complete a degree adds to student tuition costs, debt burden and lost workplace income. Further, students who complete fewer than 30 credits in their first year are less likely to graduate.”

Pell rules have created a defacto 12- credit standard of that undermines on-time completion, a standard that has been adopted by virtually all levels of higher education.

“Enrollment in 12 credits per term has become the default for many advisors and aid counselors, and consequently, the fulltime students they serve,” the report said.

“States and institutions have also adhered to this definition for full-time and set their financial aid policies at 12 credit hours for full-time enrollment. 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.”

Federal policy makers are beginning to recognize the problem. The Obama administration proposed in its fiscal 2017 budget request a $300 bonus payment to Pell recipients who take 15 credits or more each semester. And Congress is weighing reinstituting year-round disbursements of Pell funds, which could help students speed up school by taking more summer classes and earning more credits over the course of a year.

CCA believes those steps do not go far enough. It wants an expectation for annual completion of 30 credits a year for all student populations.

“Because states, institutions, advisors, and aid counselors benchmark their aid programs and guidance against the current Pell minimum definition for full-time enrollment, proposals for additional enrollment options need to consider their impact beyond the federal level and how these proposals can be used to spur greater change across the higher education field.”

CCA is calling for development of a new “on-time” Pell enrollment status to fund full-time and part-time students to complete 30 credits per year. Central to the idea is the reinstitution of summer Pell grants, allowing part-time students to earn a sufficient number of credits even while they hold down a job.

“This proposal not only sets a new standard aligned with success, it also ensures all students have the resources to enroll in a sufficient number of credits to be able to graduate on time,” the CCA report said. “This builds on other policy proposals that have called for increasing

Pell availability and flexibility with a focus on completion” Among the benefits of the program would be a significant savings for Pell Grant recipients, who by definition are low-income. By graduating in two years rather than in two-and-a-half years, lowincome students pursuing an associate degree could save on average $5,000 in tuition and related costs. Those pursuing a bachelor’s degree would save on average $15,000 in tuition and related costs, CCA said These projected savings do not account for the income benefit a student may realize by being able to enter the workforce immediately following graduation.

The report concludes: “Now more than ever, America needs college graduates to remain globally competitive. Given the substantial federal investment, Pell students can be a rich source of more highly educated Americans if we pursue policies that make their graduation more likely.”

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Advocates Say Full Academic Load Is Key to On-Time Graduation

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