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Benefits of Redefining Full-time Enrollment to 15 Credits a Semester Examined


Phyllis King, assistant vice chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says, “When appropriate, we encourage students to take 15 credits per semester.”Phyllis King, assistant vice chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says, “When appropriate, we encourage students to take 15 credits per semester.”

Even though Austin Sellers was considered a full-time student at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, no one ever pointed out that his course load of 12 credits per semester would essentially force him to spend five years to earn a four-year degree.

“Taking 12 credits a semester, you’re not going to graduate in four years,” said Sellers, a business major who graduated from UW-Milwaukee in 2013 after five-and-a-half years. “There’s no possible way.”

Sellers is hardly the only student to end up taking more than four years to earn a bachelor’s degree simply because his course load was not intense enough to do so in a shorter period of time.

One recent survey found that more than two-thirds of college students did not have a schedule that would enable them to graduate on time even if they never switched majors, failed a course or took an unnecessary course.

But now, a growing chorus of scholars and completion advocates are seeking to change that reality by raising the question: how can a student be enrolled full time and still not graduate on time?

“The fact that students can be enrolled full time and still not graduate on time is one reason why it takes students so long to complete degrees,” Serena Klempin, a research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, observes in a new report, “Redefining Full-Time in College: Evidence on 15-Credit Strategies.”

The report looks at the impact of 15-credit strategies at various institutions that have adopted them.

For instance, after the University of Hawaii System launched a massive public awareness campaign that promoted 15 credits per semester for on-time completion and made other related reforms, the number of undergraduates across the system taking 15 or more credits increased by 14.7 percent from fall 2011 to fall 2012, Klempin’s report states.

At Adams State University in Colorado, after the university began to offer $500 scholarships for completing 30 credits in one year, and also expanded its flat tuition to cover 12 to 20 credits instead of 12 to 15, the university saw an 11 percent increase in the number of credits attempted per semester, the report states. However, evidence of impacts on persistence and completion are not yet known.

Beyond the simple mathematics of the fact that it takes 15 credits per semester to earn the 60 or 120 credits that are required to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in two and four years, respectively, Klempin’s report also examines the benefits and potential unintended consequences of actually having students take 15 credits per semester.

For instance, on the positive side, the report notes that research shows that students who take 15 credits per semester are more likely to complete associate and bachelor’s degrees, and to complete bachelor’s degrees after transferring from a community college, than students taking fewer credits.

However, the report states that 15-credit semesters are difficult for students with competing responsibilities. Klempin urges universities not to implement 15-credit strategies in a rushed manner without investigating the various types of 15-credit strategies that exist and ramifications of adopting them.

“Institutions should not be too quick in leaping from promising early findings about 15-credit trends to redefining their own policies and requirements,” the report states. “Before 15-credit strategies become institutionalized or used as the basis of financial aid requirements or tuition policies, careful consideration should be given to understanding different types of strategies, their potential impacts on students and how the cost of financial incentives will be managed.”

As for the University of Wisconsin―Milwaukee, Phyllis King, assistant vice chancellor at the university, said the school is currently revamping its academic advising by making it more centralized with the registrar’s office, instituting a new course scheduling policy and possibly shopping for some software to help build class schedules.

Embedded in these issues “may be” the 15-credit strategy, King said.

“When appropriate, we encourage students to take 15 credits per semester,” King said. “[Although] some students, for a variety of reasons, are unable to successfully complete 15 credits in one semester.”

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