Providing Alternative Pathways to “15 to Finish”Karen Stout | President and CEO, Achieving the Dream
The campaign underway to promote the “15 to Finish” concept of encouraging college students to earn at least 15 credits each semester is gaining interest among a number of public colleges and statewide higher education systems. The U.S. Department of Education has also weighed in and proposed a $300 annual bonus for Pell recipients who enroll in at least 15 credits per semester.
Unfortunately, “15 to Finish” can be a heavy lift for the 80 percent of today’s American students who most likely are juggling work, family and other responsibilities while trying to pursue their educational goals.
The realities of our students’ lives and the increasing costs of higher education often move the finish line of completion further and further into the future for our students, particularly who are often first generation students, working full-time, raising families, sometimes academically underprepared, and from low-income backgrounds, all creating obstacles to successfully attending full-time to lead to the most direct path to graduation.
In the rush to “15 to Finish,” we need to be careful that we do not set up a situation where more students are doomed to fail and drop out, rather than move toward achieving their goals. Institutions should be intentional in their advising processes to help these students finish on time, but to do so by guiding and assisting them with summer and online courses and other options that best suit their educational goals and life situation. Many of our students are studying part-time. For example, 60 percent of all community college students are pursuing their studies on a part-time basis, for financial or personal reasons. Pell Grants alone may not meet the needs of low-income students who often fall into this category. We cannot and must not take our attention away from these students as well.
We must also be clear that 15 credits each semester will not be a guarantee that a student completes on time. Course selection and changes in major can impact whether the credits a student has obtained will be counted toward graduation in the field of study.
While I agree that 15 credits per semester should be the default when advising students toward completion on time, it should be reinforced by the concept of annual credit accumulation, regardless of the specific semester load. This should become best practice for our institutions. In order for annual credit accumulation to help students move through at a quicker pace, a number of changes need to happen at the institutional leadership level.
First, academic advisors will need to take a longer and more integrated view of the whole student experience. For example, they will need to look beyond the “transactional” semester-by-semester building process and instead consider other factors that contribute to a student’s experience at the institution. Next, college administrators will need to be more intentional when they build out flexible schedule options with their program pathways so that their students are able to plan their schedules with an annual view, rather than just a semester view. And last, in order to help students with this new annual schedule planning, colleges will need to create and maintain non-cancellable schedules.
On a more global scale, if colleges are moving to a 15 credit semester practice, the pricing models will need to change. Careful understanding of the cost/benefit for our students (for example, cost of time and tuition against wages that students can earn) is critical. We can not continue the current pricing model without regard for the increased course load and its impact on students.
The work that many institutions are undertaking around guided pathways and meta majors can also help to eliminate the unnecessary and extra credits students take, which can lead to delays in on-time completion. Strong integrated advising, education planning, and targeted interventions can ensure students are progressing. This integrated advising initiative is being modeled in a number of community colleges and universities across the country.
The other piece to this puzzle for community college transfer students must be stronger transfer and articulation practices and policies with four-year institutions. Here’s an example: a student stays on track and accumulates the credits needed to complete on time at a community college, and then transfers to a four-year institution and discovers that his or her credits will not be accepted or accepted into the major. The result is discouraging and frustrating to students (and often to their advisors) and leaves students further behind reaching their ultimate goal.
Caution needs to be taken that good practice at the institutional level does not become state or federal policy, thereby further disadvantaging students who already face numerous obstacles. The Department of Education’s proposal to provide the “on-track Pell bonus,” however, is a signal that “15 to Finish” is moving toward policy. If this becomes the minimum course load requirement for Pell—which would likely trickle down to state level financial aid—we will exclude a high number of students from access to federal financial aid.
Currently, data are not available nationwide on students who may already be enrolled for 15 or more credit hours. A full assessment of the current course loads and outcomes will be critical in better understanding the potential impact and possible benefits of the 15-credit initiative.
I worry that without the value of evaluating national data, well intended state and federal policymakers may be quick to latch on to the “15 to Finish” concept without a full understanding or appreciation of the need for these other components. Such policies alone, in the final assessment, may well help the students with the financial resources and academic preparation—students who would likely have succeeded anyway. Outcomes for students with barriers and challenges will not likely improve under a policy that focuses solely on 15-credit semester accumulation without the accompanying strategies I have noted.
Instead, federal policy should be centered around providing more access to financial aid for the range of today’s students rather than limiting access. There are viable alternatives to the Pell bonus proposal, such as year-round Pell and perhaps a “full” Pell incentive for completing 30 credits in a year, rather than focusing on carrying 15 credits in one semester. Moving to year-round Pell will enable more students to stay on track toward completion on time, but without the very real potential of burnout or even failure.
Coupled with institutional practices, integrated advising and planning, guided pathways and other student-centric reforms, we can and are making progress in helping more American college students complete on time. Our institutions are here to support all students and to put them on the path to success by guiding them to those options that best suit their educational goals and life situation. We must be careful not to establish federal or state policies which may hinder access to higher education, because without access, we will not have student success.
Author Perspective: Analyst