College freshmen who averaged at least 15 credits per term during their first year were 19 percentage points more likely to graduate in four years, according to a study of nearly 1.3 million full-time college students at 137 institutions recently released by EAB.
The findings show that it is especially important for incoming students to take 15 credits per term, despite the fact that, at most colleges and universities, 12 credits per term is considered full-time.
Freshmen who took 15 credits per term—even students entering college with lower high school GPAs—were also more likely to enroll for sophomore year and get better grades than those who took less than 15 credits. Students with a high school GPA of 2.0 to 3.0 who took 15 or more credits ended their freshman year with a GPA that was more than a quarter of a grade point higher than their peers.
“These findings show that an increased credit load is unlikely to be detrimental for students at any academic level, challenging a common concern that taking more classes is a bad idea for struggling students,” said Ed, Venit, senior director of strategic research at EAB. “In fact, the least prepared students were more likely to persist and get better grades if they took a few extra credits their first term.”
The EAB Data Science Team also analyzed a subset of the original sample for whom financial data was available (approximately 20,000 students from six schools) and found that Pell-eligible students who took 15 or more credits per semester were similarly more likely to come back to school for sophomore year and finish their freshman year with a higher GPA than their peers who took fewer than 15 credits.
Despite a push by national nonprofits like Complete College America, to promote “15 to Finish” campaigns, 44 percent of the students the EAB team studied averaged fewer than15 credits per term during their freshman year. “The problem we need to address is that many college freshmen are not starting their college careers by taking enough credits to graduate within four years, which could increase their tuition and student loan costs, as well as delay future earnings,” Venit continued.
Universities and colleges across the country have implemented initiatives to encourage students to take at least 15 credits per semester, or 30 credits per year. For instance, the University of Central Florida (UCF) launched the Think 30 Campaign in 2015 to encourage students to complete 30 credits each year. The university also deployed EAB Campus to enable advisors and other student success professionals to collaborate and communicate with students toward the goal of timely graduation.
UCF has already seen success from this shift in policy and technology: 64 percent of the 2015-2016 full-time students at UCF took 30 or more credits in their first year, compared to 60 percent of the 2014-2015 cohort. Additionally, the average GPA of a first-year student at UCF who took 30 or more credits during the 2015-2016 school year was 3.2, vs. an average GPA of 2.6 for students who took 24 or fewer credits during this same period.
Read the full blog post with access to the findings, methodology and policy recommendations here.
Material from a press release was used in this report.