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15 to Finish: Encouraging Students to Redefine “Full Time”

The EvoLLLution | 15 to Finish: Encouraging Students to Redefine “Full Time”
By defining “full time” as 12 credits per semester, institutions are putting students into a system that’s designed for them to fail. It’s critical to get students taking 15 credits per semester, or 30 credits per year, to maximize their opportunities for success.

Outcomes, and the graduation rate specifically, are areas of specific concern and focus for today’s colleges and universities. After all, this is what their performance is largely judged upon. However, higher education’s culture of defining full-time study as enrolling in 12 credits per semester is antithetical to that goal. This is because it’s simply mathematically impossible for a student to graduate inside four years with such a low course load. In this interview, Risa Dickson reflects on how her and her colleagues are encouraging students to aim higher and succeed.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why do so many students opt to take 12 credits per semester rather than 15?

Risa Dickson (RD): Since the beginning of time, 12 credits have been considered full time. That’s the number of credits used to designate full time for the purposes of federal financial aid, and 12 credits is usually the designation for full time when setting fees and tuition. This is particularly important; many institutions don’t charge students any more money after 12 credits. There’s a culture around defining full time as 12 credits per semester.

Evo: Taking 12 credits per semester per year for four years wouldn’t give a student enough credits to graduate?

RD: No, taking 12 credits per semester will not put a student on track to graduate. It takes at least five years if they only take 12 credits each semester.

Evo: How does this undershooting impact retention and completion, especially for non-traditional and other traditionally underserved student demographics?

RD: The longer it takes to get through college, the less likely it is that people are going to complete. The faster we get them through, however, the more likely they complete. Part of the problem is that students’ Pell Grant eligibility will begin to run out if they don’t make either satisfactory progress towards a degree or if they take too long towards the end of their schooling.

This is one of the reasons why students who come into school with college credits that they’ve earned in high school do so much better.  One of the things we’re pushing for right now is to get as many students as we can to have  at least six credits on their transcript when they arrive at college. Those students typically do better, and that effects retention.

Evo: How is the 15 to Finish program you and your team have launched helping to overcome these obstacles?

RD: 15 to Finish generates a number of benefits for students. It’s important to note that students can enroll in any courses after their minimum of 12 without paying extra. That is true for most schools. Students are going to pay the same rate after 12 credits, no matter how many total credits they take.

If the student can get through in four years or less by taking 15 credits or more per semester, they are graduating less expensively. They are paying less money for the same number of credits and they save one entire year’s worth of tuition. They’re able to take full advantage of available financial aid plus they get out into the workforce much more quickly. There is no lost income while they’re completing their degree and, again, we know that the faster you get through the more likely that you’re going to complete.

Evo: How must the Pell Grant system evolve to help avoid issues like these?

RD: There are a few critical changes that could be made to Pell to help offset these issues for students. One of the really cool things that’s happening here is a pilot program that’s giving Pell Grants to high school students who want to start college early. It’s a really cool way to help offset the costs for them, and what I like about that is high school kids are already in school so it’s not like they’re making really big sacrifices to find the time or the resources to enroll in higher education.

Another thing that I would like to see is Pell eligibility in the summer. What we know is that if you can take 15 credits per semester, you’re going to graduate much more quickly. If you expand this, we’re effectively imagining students earning thirty credits each year to graduate on time. However, some students are working and have competing priorities—they might not be able to take a full 15 credits in the fall and winter semesters. If they could take the courses in the summer, though, they could still earn thirty credits in a year. They may not save as much money because they’re paying summer tuition, but they will graduate in four years as opposed to five, six or more.

Those are two ways that I would like to see the Pell Grant evolve: offering summer eligibility and creating access for high school students to take college credits.

Evo: Does traditional financial aid also cover summer enrollments or is that strictly a fall and winter semester just like Pell?

RD: There is usually very little money for summer. Almost anywhere I’ve ever been, financial aid is usually for the traditional school year. This again, interestingly enough, tends to specifically impact non-traditional students.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the 15 to Finish program and its impact on student success?

RD: 15 to Finish gets students out and into the workforce or on to a graduate degree more quickly. We’ve been able to make a culture shift, where people are really talking about 15 credits as full time instead of 12. With the big media push we did, students now understand that they can take 15 credits per semester at the same price as if they took 12 credits. That culture shift, of defining full time as 15 credits rather than 12, is critical over the long term.