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College Affordability and Preparedness

Improving Equity and Affordability in Higher Ed

This past May, during thousands of National College Signing Day events held across the country, students proudly declared the college or university they plan to attend in the Fall. These declarations represent each student’s commitment to attend their chosen institution, but also signify the accepting institutions’ commitment to support these students through graduation day.  

Unfortunately, by the time many students begin their first semester of college, they are already at a disadvantage for graduating on time, or at all. Why? Simply put, students aren’t taking enough course credits.

Where’s the gap?  

The problem isn’t necessarily that students aren’t aware of the right number of credits to take. Well-meaning family members, friends, and academic advisors often advise students to take fewer courses in order to “ease their way” into the new rigors and pressures associated with a college curriculum and campus life.

While well-intentioned, this advice is detrimental to the student who aspires to complete college in a timely manner, instead setting them on a path toward additional semesters that will ultimately cost them and their families thousands of dollars in tuition and lost earnings. This phenomenon is all too common and particularly harmful to students of color and students from low-income backgrounds — those at greatest risk for not completing college degrees and academic credentials of value.

Where the hurt is felt

Many research studies have demonstrated the ways in which bias against and low expectations for students of color have led to less equitable outcomes on college campuses, both in the classroom and in advising practices.

Additionally, students eligible to receive Pell Grants are only required to take 12 credits each semester to maintain eligibility for this federal financial aid program. This sends the erroneous message to Pell recipients, who, by definition, are low-income students, that taking 12 credits per semester is sufficient for achieving an on-time college completion.  

Working hard at working hard

For the better part of a decade, Complete College America (CCA) has championed the “15 to Finish” strategy. The strategy involves creating a campaign to inform students about the necessity of enrolling in 15 credits per semester, or 30 per year, to stay on track for an on-time graduation.

Ideally, the campaign includes training advisors and capping tuition rates to financially incentivize students to enroll in additional courses. 15 to Finish, also known as “Think 30” or “Finish in 4” on some campuses, has spread across the country with astounding results. Most recently, the strategy resulted in significant gains for minority-serving institutions that participated in a CCA initiative.

CCA acknowledges that 15 to Finish won’t work for all students. For part-time and returning adult students, in particular, financial responsibilities and family obligations make it virtually impossible.  However, it is essential that all prospective or enrolled college students are made aware of the benefits of an on-time graduation, and that taking even one more course each semester will get them closer to a timely graduation.

Yolanda Watson Spiva, Ph.D., President, Complete College America, [email protected]

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