A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

CPE urges college freshmen to take 15 credits a semester, 30 per year for on-time graduation

The Council on Postsecondary Education has a message for freshmen heading to college this fall: Take 15 credit hours your first semester and be nearly twice as likely to graduate on time.

That’s one of the key findings of a new CPE policy brief, “Momentum and Student Success in Kentucky: The Power of 15 Credits.” The report examines the impact of first-semester and first-year enrollment intensity on graduation rates, and offers best practices and policy recommendations.

On-time graduation is two years for an associate degree and four years for a bachelor’s.

The likelihood of timely graduation continues to improve for students earning 30 credit hours their first year. This holds true for students attending the colleges of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and the public four-year universities.

The report showed that full-time students pursuing associate degrees at KCTCS graduate at approximately three times the rate if they complete 30 credit hours their first year, compared to students who complete less than 30 hours.

For bachelor’s degree-seeking students at the state universities, the four-year graduation rate jumps from the overall rate of 28.9 percent to 60 percent for students who earned 30 credit hours their freshman year.

“The report’s findings are crystal clear. The prevailing notion that students might need to ease into college and take only 12-14 credit hours their first semester is clearly not the best approach for the vast majority of first-time, full-time students,” said Aaron Thompson, CPE executive vice president and chief academic officer.

“Academic momentum in the freshman year is a great predictor of student success at both the associate and bachelor’s degree levels,” he added.

Timely graduation provides other perks to students and their families, such as saving tuition costs of an extra year or two of college and the potential to graduate with less student debt.

In terms of closing achievement gaps, the report showed very positive impacts on graduation rates for underrepresented minorities, low-income and underprepared students at both the associate and bachelor’s degree levels.

Closing achievement gaps: Three-year graduation rates for associate degrees

• Underrepresented minority students’ graduation rate was 77.3 percent for those completing 30 credit hours their first year, compared to 16.5 percent for those with less than 30.

• Low-income students’ graduation rate was 76.3 percent if they completed 30 hours their first year, compared to 23 percent for those with less than 30.

• Underprepared students’ graduation rate was 67.8 percent if they earned 30 hours their freshman year, compared to 19.9 percent for those who did not.

Closing achievement gaps: Six-year graduation rates for bachelor’s degrees

• Underrepresented minority students taking 30 credit hours their freshman year at the public universities was 79.6 percent, up from 30 percent who completed less than 30.

• For low-income students, the graduation rate was 76.7 percent for those who took 30 credit hours their first year, compared to 27.9 percent for those who completed less than 30.

• Underprepared students also fared well with a 74.2 percent graduation rate if they completed 30 credits their first year, compared to 29 percent for those who took less than 30.

Encouraging timely college completion is one of CPE’s “game changers” to help raise the state’s educational attainment of the working-age population to 60 percent by 2030.

To shorten time to degree, the report recommends:

• Strengthening advising and reaching out to students when they attempt to change a major, sign up for a course not on their academic plan, or register for less than 15 credits.

• Continuing to build competency-based education and other program innovations that support timely graduation.

• Adopting tuition structures that provide incentives for students to enroll in 12 to 18 credit hours at the same cost.

• Considering incentives in state financial aid programs for students to take 30 credits in an academic year. Campuses should consider adopting financial incentives such as on-time completions bonuses, small incentive scholarships and reduced rates for the summer term.

• Promoting the “15 to Finish” messaging at both state and campus levels.

• Continuing to move away from developmental education courses to the corequisite model, which places students in credit-bearing courses with academic supports to more likely ensure students stay on track to graduation.

Access the policy brief at cpe.ky.gov.

Access the interactive charts for academic momentum at cpe.ky.gov.

From Council on Postsecondary Education

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