Encourage and support full-time enrollment and progress, and ensure the availability of courses students need to complete programs of study on time
Data suggest that students who attend college full-time make better progress, and are more likely to persist to their degree, than students who are enrolled on a part-time basis. A student who is able to complete 12 or more credits per semester will earn a degree more quickly than a part-time student. Unfortunately, many students cannot afford to enroll full-time due to work, family and other commitments. Lack of course availability is also a significant barrier to full-time enrollment. Too often institutions fail to offer enough sections of a course needed for timely progression, thus increasing time to degree and the cost to students and institutions. A 2010 McKinsey & Company report examined the practices of highly productive higher education institutions and concluded that reducing credits to degree and time to degree not only lowers costs for students but also lowers costs for institutions and increases the capacity of existing institutions to serve more students without additional funding. Policy leaders hoping to boost the number of degree holders in their state will need to strategize ways to reduce time to degree by helping more students attend college on a full-time basis. They should:
- encourage institutions to offer a flat tuition rate for students who take at least 12 semester credit hours (additionally, institutions should motivate student progression by giving students the opportunity to take 15 credit hours at no extra cost; aid amounts can decrease on a prorated basis for those taking fewer credits);
- design financial aid requirements to encourage students to take full course loads (12 to 15 credits per term) and to meet credit hour benchmarks for renewal;
- support efforts to provide intensive advising and other student supports to ensure timely progress and completion;
- ensure that degree requirements do not exceed 60 credit hours for a two-year degree, and 120 credit hours for a four-year degree; and
- ensure that course availability is not a barrier to degree completion; scheduling should be adjusted to ensure the availability of courses that students need to complete their degree.
Complete College America’s Time is the Enemy reports that 40 percent of college students are able to enroll only part-time, and that 25 percent of those will fail to complete a degree. The results are stark across the board for one-year, two-year and four-year degree seekers: Only slightly more than 12 percent of part-time students in a one-year certificate program had earned the certificate within two years, compared with nearly 28 percent for full-time students; a dismal 7.8 percent of two-year degree seekers earned their degree within four years, compared with 18.8 percent of full-time attendees; and only slightly more than 24 percent of four-year degree seekers earned their degree within eight years, compared with 60 percent of full-time students. Additionally, a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that more than 75 percent of full-time students complete their degree within six years.
Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.
Hawaii’s Graduation Initiative seeks to increase the number of University of Hawai’i graduates by 25 percent by the year 2015. The 15 to Finish program encourages students at both two- and four-year colleges to enroll in a minimum of 15 credits per semester to stay on track for timely completion. Students are advised to register for 15 credits per semester, complete math and English courses during the first year of college, and meet with academic advisors to create a graduation map. A robust communication plan focuses on the benefits of finishing college in a timely fashion, in terms of both money saved and future earning potential.
Illinois’ Monetary Award Program (MAP) is a need-based grant program that includes credit hours as an eligibility requirement. Students who demonstrate need are eligible for a grant if they take at least three credit hours per term. A full-semester grant is awarded to students who take 15 credits or more; students taking fewer hours receive prorated grants. Credit hours paid for by MAP grants are called “MAP paid credit hours” or MPCH. A maximum of 75 MPCH are available for freshmen and sophomores; juniors and seniors can receive an additional 60 MPCH for a total of 135 MPCH. The grants are subject to sufficient appropriations by the Illinois General Assembly. This year only about half of qualified students will receive aid.
To encourage student momentum, Indiana University (IU) charges a flat-fee tuition rate, known as “block tuition,” that allows students to enroll in 12 to 17 credit hours per semester at the same price. The policy motivates timely student progress by eliminating extra costs for additional credit hours. Most degree programs at IU require at least 15 credit hours per semester for on-time completion. Additionally, in 2012 the Indiana General Assembly enacted a law requiring state colleges and universities to limit credit hours for a bachelor’s degree to 120, and associate degrees to 60. The new credit hour caps took effect in fall 2013.
The University of Minnesota (UMN) implemented a banded tuition policy in 2002. UMN students enrolled in 12 or fewer credit hours are charged per credit. Students taking more than 12 credit hours per semester are charged a flat rate, without any extra costs for increased credit loads. The policy motivates students to enroll in a full load of credits and reduces time to degree. UMN students are also required to receive approval to enroll in fewer than 12 credits per semester. UMN’s Twin Cities campus reports that four-year graduation rates have increased from 32 percent to 50 percent since implementation of the policy. In addition to utilizing banded tuition, Minnesota also prorates its state financial aid based on a 15-credit maximum (not 12).
- A Report on the Efficiency and Sustainability of the Monetary Award Program, Illinois Board of Higher Education, April 2010
- Aligning Student Incentives with Institutional Incentives in Texas, HCM Strategists (one-pager)
- “Financial Aid Policy: Lessons from Research,” Future of Children, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 2013
- Guided Pathways to Success: Boosting College Completion, Complete College America, 2006
- On Money and Motivation: A Quasi-Experimental Analysis of Financial Incentives for College Achievement, Community College Research Center, October 2009
- Promoting a Culture of Student Success: How Colleges and Universities Are Improving Degree Completion, Southern Regional Education Board
- Winning By Degrees: The Strategies of Highly Productive Higher-Education Institutions, McKinsey and Company, 2010
- Redefining Full-Time in College: Evidence on 15 Credit Strategies, Community College Research Center