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Getting Students to Graduate Faster

By Reyna Gobel

Through its 15 to Finish program, South Louisiana Community College is changing students’ perception of full-time attendance — and getting them to graduate sooner.

Natalie J. Harder, chancellor of South Louisiana Community College (SLCC), was surprised to learn why many students weren’t completing their associate degrees in two years: Students thought taking 12 credits per semester was enough to reach the academic finish line. In fact, students need to average 15 credits per semester to finish an associate degree in four semesters.

Why were students confused? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid form lists 12 credits as full-time attendance.

To rectify this misconception, SLCC started the 15 to Finish campaign, which communicates to students in different ways that they need 15 credits per semester to graduate in two years. The campaign is working: Between the fall 2013 and fall 2014 semesters, the number of first-time degree-seeking students enrolling in 15 or more credits per semester at SLCC rose 84 percent.

Implementing 15 to Finish

The concept of 15 to Finish is simple: Get students to take more credits per semester, which often means enrolling in an additional class. Success lies in the ability to communicate the benefits of a 15-credit semester in ways that resonate with students, and in making sure that students can get the classes they need.

Following are four keys to the success of 15 to Finish:

Talking to students in class. Harder wanted to understand why students weren’t taking at least 15 credits, so she went straight to the source, visiting 25 classes on the college’s eight different campuses. For first-time degree-seeking students, the No. 1 answer was that they didn’t know 12 credits wouldn’t be enough to graduate in four semesters. After learning how many credits were needed, Harder says many students signed up for an additional class. Increasing their credit load wasn’t a financial hardship, because Louisiana public colleges and universities don’t charge tuition on credits over 12, she explains.

Involving the appropriate faculty and staff. In December 2013, Harder created a 15 to Finish task force that included representatives from student services, faculty and the administration. “I really wanted an across-the-college understanding of the impact [15 to Finish] could have, because everybody engages with students,” Harder says. Also, many faculty members are general education advisers, so they needed to understand the importance of communicating what is truly a full-time credit load at the college. “We set students up to not graduate on time if we don’t tell them to take 15 credits per semester,” Harder says.

Communicating all the time and in different ways. All first-year SLCC students must meet with an academic adviser at some point during the year, and these sessions always include a discussion of 15 to Finish. Facebook has also been a powerful tool for getting the word out, and 15 to Finish is promoted during new-student orientation. Since the cost of taking 12 credits is the same as taking 15, and paying for four semesters will always be less expensive than paying for five, the argument isn’t hard to make. “We found that it takes students hearing messages several times before it sinks in. Advisers, social media, faculty and our website worked together to send this message,” Harder says.

Adding late-start classes. Harder found that the second-most-common reason students were not taking 15 credits was because the classes they needed were unavailable. To fix the problem, Harder worked with admissions staff and deans to add late-start classes based on the number of degree-seeking students in each field who wanted to enroll in a class. The late-start classes began in the fall of 2014, and they run 12 weeks instead of 16. “Without an option for late-start classes, students have less ability to correct their problem of being one class short of 15 credits,” Harder says.

Harder encourages other community colleges to start similar programs: “This program can pay for itself,” she insists. “You’re using existing faculty and increasing retention.”

How is your community college moving students to graduation sooner? Tell us in the Comments.

Reyna Gobel

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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