Evaluation, Higher Education

Root Causes

Since many institutions of higher education set preparation for and engagement with life-long learning as a goal, it is fitting that I should take my own continued education to heart. Recently, I enrolled in a course called Policy Design and Delivery: A Systematic Approach to strengthen my skills at both developing and analyzing policy proposals.  Motivated by a sense that the many “solutions” to higher education’s problems do not represent a clear and thoughtful analysis of the contexts in which those problems arise, I am searching for a better understanding of how to craft a good policy.  It has been illuminating so far.

Without even using the tools in my policy design course, though, I can see that many of our education policies mistake correlations for causes. For example:

  • Students who participate in co-curricular activities have higher retention rates than those who do not, so we push to require co-curricular activities.  Sounds good, but maybe the students who are committed to staying at a university are the ones who decide to get involved.
  • Students who attend classes regularly are more likely to be successful than those who do not, so let’s adopt attendance tracking technologies and pair them with nudge technology and get students into class.  Attendance matters of course, but not attending is often a decision that no amount of nudging will change. Perhaps attendance is the mark of a student who wants to succeed.
  • And for today’s discussion: Students who commit to a true full-time schedule are most likely to complete their studies…otherwise known as 15 to finish.

Complete College America has invested a lot in the 15 to finish initiative, and for good reason. First of all, we have been confusing our students about the meaning of full-time.  Federal financial aid rules set full-time status at 12 credit hours per semester. This status opens up access to housing and many grants.  A student might logically conclude that 12 credits per semester is sufficient for timely completion of a four-year degree.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up. State, national, and accreditation standards define an undergraduate degree as a having a minimum of 120 credit hours (there are some regional differences, but this is the generally accepted standard). The true number is 15 credits per semester.  This is important for us to communicate, so the slogan is a good start.

Second, there is a growing body of research surrounding the notion of “momentum.” Simply put, students who are engaged in their majors early and earn those 15 credits per semester tend to remain motivated to get to the finish line. This is usually linked to guided pathways, which help to limit the chances that students enroll in courses that do not support progress in their degree plan. Success and engagement propel students forward.  Those on a slower path have a greater tendency to stop out, or grow discouraged and lose sight of the finish line.  So, in an ideal world, a truly full-time schedule with a mix of general education and major coursework from the first semester of enrollment is the best approach to degree completion.

Great, but here is where it starts to get problematic. Once we clear up the mystery of degree requirements so that all students understand the 15 to finish concept, there are still myriad reasons why 15 credits per semester is not possible for a significant number of students.

  1. A student may need to work on some foundational skills in their first year of college and the better path to success is 12 or 13 credits, rather than 15.  For example, if a student is behind in their math skills, they might enroll in a 4-credit course in math (rather than the more typical 3-credit general education math course).  To get their schedule just right, with adequate time to pay attention to those math skills, it might be best to stop at somewhere between 13 credits.  If all goes well, the end of the first year might leave that student with 27-29 credits. This is technically behind (below 30 credits) and penalties follow. In this case, the most obvious penalty is their continued status as a first year student. Registration priorities are tied to the number of credits earned.  Higher numbers go first.  A student who took this slightly slower path is at a higher risk of not getting into the next class in a set of requirements because they are still registering with first year students.
  2. A student may be enrolled in a highly competitive program that requires very challenging foundation courses, and opts for a slightly lower number of credits to help manage their time and attention.  For example, science, nursing and pre-med students are likely to take this option.  They might be enrolled in two lab sciences (8 credits), math (3 credits or 4), and humanities (3 credits). If the math class is 4 credits, they will be on track for the 15.  If not, they will be behind and suffer the same penalty as the student with some foundational needs.
  3. A student may have to work while in college (or raise children or report for military service).  The rational decision is to take a lighter load, but the penalties abound.  A part-time student will not be eligible for many grants, will not receive the benefits of the bundling discount (charging the same price for 12-18 credits) and will suffer the registration penalty because they have not yet made it to the status of sophomore or junior or senior.  This means that a hard working part-time student could be in school for eight years, steadily working toward a degree, and never be recognized as deserving of the benefits of higher class standing and never receive any financial support. Now that is a real disincentive to completion.

So, what’s the point. Well, if 15-to-finish were just a catchy slogan it would be of no real concern.  Indeed, some of the things I have described are things that we can fix locally by reimagining our registration priorities and focusing on part-time tuition support. But there are now trends toward additional financial aid strategies being tied to the 15 credits per semester (See New York’s Excelsior Program as a start).  As the nation discusses free tuition, the nuances I have described are frequently missed. Many of these proposals are built around that ideal full-time student.  Yet many of the students who would benefit from this tuition break will not qualify because they will not be able to complete 15 credits per semester.  Again, the penalties can be tremendous.

As for cause and correlation, well it is obviously true that completing 15 credits per semester is correlated with higher graduation rates. But the root causes of student success, which lead to the ability to actually complete those 15 credits, are far more complex than the credit story.  We need to step back and look at the conditions that are driving those behaviors so that the policies we design do not continue to disadvantage those who need our help the most.





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