Frazzled: Are initiatives like 15 to Finish Necessary?

By SueAnne Juskowich, Kapi‘o Staff Writer/

In an effort to improve on-time graduation rates and increase the percentage of adults with college degrees, the 15 to Finish initiative encourages both incoming freshmen and currently enrolled students to complete 15 credits per semester in pursuit of a two- or four-year degree.

In essence, this means that the federal standard of 12 credits for a full-time course load is no longer deemed good enough.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 3 percent of students at Kapiolani Community College graduate within the “normal” window of time, whereas 13 percent of KCC students graduate at 150 percent of that time, and 18 percent graduate at 200 percent of the same standard.

I assume that this is one reason that the University of Hawai‘i, through it’s Hawai‘i Graduation Initiative, is the driving force behind 15 to Finish.

In the program’s defense, it makes sense that taking additional credits would help students to graduate and to get into the workforce faster.

It has also been said that students are more likely to graduate at all if they attend full-time. Obviously this saves students on tuition and opportunity cost in the long run, but at what personal cost?

Proponents of 15 to Finish fail to notice the life factors in and outside of school that contribute to a student’s ability to enroll full-time, or to even matriculate on a part-time basis. Most community college students are balancing more than their grade point averages. Most work, some have children, and a large number also qualify as low-income and non-traditional students. Shouldn’t it matter how policies like 15 to Finish might negatively impact these students’ lives?

Consider that 34 percent of KCC students are 25 years or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Imagine the juggling act for a nontraditional single parent who scrapes by on minimum wage, takes care of one or more children, and then crams all night for their chemistry final. Think also of a middle-aged worker whose job sunk in the economy and still has a mortgage to pay. Somehow they squeeze in time for another lab or engineering class.

Their ambition is laudable, yes, but can you imagine the stress these students face? Is it any wonder that these same cohorts are also the most likely to drop out? We really should not be pushing them to take on more.

Supporters of 15 to Finish claim that taking 15 credits leads to better grades, but how can that be true for these already frazzled students? It’s plausible that already high-performing students straight out of high school, with no bills or outside responsibilities, can handle such a course load. But, realistically, this cannot be the standard.

In fact, selection bias exists in the positive claims related to 15 to Finish, as the student sample already enjoyed greater affluence and academic preparation, as noted in a 2014 study by David Monaghan and Paul Attewell of the American Educational Research Association. The same study indicated that graduation rates did not actually increase for students working 30 plus hours per week, as these students eventually reduced the course loads across their academic journey.

It has also been indicated that performance in school can plummet when greater demands are forced onto struggling students, motivating them instead to opt for easier programs, drop credits mid-semester, or take fewer classes in subsequent semesters, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. The same research suggests that low-income and first-generation college students especially lack persistence, regardless of their academic potential.

The UH system shouldn’t suddenly require 15 credits to graduate “on time” while other schools are doing just fine with 12. It also doesn’t make sense to call an associate degree a “two-year” degree if it takes most students three or four years to complete. Likewise, we shouldn’t consider a bachelor’s degree a “four-year” degree if it really takes students five or six years to attain.

I understand that student retention, graduation, and institutional effectiveness are important for our school’s accreditation. However, churning out degrees in a certain timeframe should not be our primary goal.

The focus instead should be on a quality education.