Given the rising costs of higher education, there is growing concern that most students take longer than the conventional timeframe to complete a college degree. Ironically, federal financial aid laws have helped to exacerbate this situation because they allow students to be considered enrolled full-time (and thus be eligible to receive a full award) if they take 12 credits per semester. But to complete an associate degree in two years, or a bachelor’s degree in four, students must take 15 credits per semester.
To address this discrepancy, a number of colleges and states are pursuing strategies that encourage more intensive enrollment. Adams State University in Colorado, for example, awards $500 scholarships to students who complete 30 credits in one year, uses a “banded tuition” structure so that students pay the same amount for 15 as for 12 credits, and has launched a 15-credit public awareness campaign. Similarly, the University of Hawaii publicizes the advantages of 15 credit enrollment through advertising and social media, and has created freshman block scheduling and academic maps that define full-time enrollment as 15 credits.
The Community College Research Center recently reviewed the research on 15-credit strategies, and found some promising evidence that incentivizing more intensive enrollment may increase college completion rates. A number of studies indicate a strong correlation between enrollment intensity and completion. One analysis matched students in a national dataset and found that those enrolled in 15 credits were more likely to earn a degree. Since implementing 15 credit strategies, both Adams State and University of Hawaii have reported an increase in credits attempted and earned; at University of Hawaii, more students are persisting to their second year.
More significantly, two rigorous studies of scholarship programs that incentivized greater enrollment intensity found that participating students accrued more credits and, in one study, were more likely to earn a degree.
Not a panacea
Like any reform, 15 credit incentive strategies are not the sole answer. It should be noted that students in the two scholarship studies were already higher performing, so the findings cannot be generalized to all students. Two additional studies of incentive scholarship programs found that students who struggled to maintain the required minimum GPA took fewer credits the following semester to get their grades up. These findings suggest, not surprisingly, that enrollment in 15-credits is unlikely to benefit all students. Thus incentives should be carefully targeted. Moreover, any 15-credit strategy should include added supports for students who need help managing higher course-loads.
Another issue to consider is the question of who will pay for financial incentives. Awarding scholarships to any student who enrolls in 15 credits may disproportionately benefit better-off students, since those students generally have more resources to support full-time enrollment. And tuition caps could end up burdening part-time students. At West Virginia’s community colleges, for example, revenue lost from the tuition cap was recouped by raising tuition, resulting in higher fees for part-time students.
Taken together, the evidence suggests that colleges should not be too quick to leap based on promising early findings on 15-credit strategies. There is no consensus about the best way to incentivize enrollment intensity and colleges will need to carefully consider a range of approaches. For example, colleges might want to promote 30 credits per year—rather than 15 credits per semester—to give students summers to make up for non-credit remedial courses or those they have failed to complete.
If colleges do opt to pursue a 15-credit strategy, they need to make complementary changes in advising, scheduling, program design and academic supports. Enrolling in more courses will benefit no one if the result is higher failure rates, or an accumulation of credits that don’t lead to the completion of students’ desired programs.