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Campaign To Encourage On-Time Graduation Raises Concern

According to state figures, only three in ten college students finish a degree in four years – that means 70 percent of students do not.

Indiana’s Commission for Higher Education wants to change that.

At IUPUI new student orientation this week, Commissioner Teresa Lubbers launched the statewide “15 to Finish” campaign, designed to help more Indiana students graduate on time by encouraging them to complete at least 15 credits each semester. Lubbers says it will help students graduate more quickly, earn better grades and save money.

“We can actually convey it I think in compelling terms from both a financial standpoint and a completion standpoint,” Lubbers explains. “You’re more likely to graduate, and you’re not going to have as much debt. Those are pretty powerful messages for students and families.”

A few other states have already implemented similar policies, and seen success. In the first year of its initiative, the University of Hawaii system saw a 15 percent increase in the number of students taking 15 credits.

Lubbers says at IUPUI, simply telling students they’d need that many credit-hours to graduate on time led to double the number of students taking 15 credits in just one semester.

But some university representatives are concerned the campaign may not be sending the right message to students. Although most everyone agrees that on-time completion is a good thing, some have concerns that it’s not taking into consideration why students choose to take fewer credit hours.

“One of the issues that students confront is whether or not they can afford their education,” says  Elizabeth Guertin, Executive Director of Advising at Indiana University-Bloomington. “The monies that they get from aid, the monies maybe that they get from family, whatever they can earn on their own to make it possible for them to get their degree.”

At Indiana University, for example, each credit-hour costs about $280 for in-state residents. If a student increases her course load from 12 credit-hours to 15 credits, she’ll pay about $850 more dollars per semester.

But higher education officials say delaying those credits could cost a lot more in the long run.

On average, the annual bill for undergraduate students in Indiana is a little more than $7,000 dollars. If they stick around for a fifth year, the commission for higher ed estimates it costs an extra $50,000.

And after eight semesters, students are no longer eligible for federal financial aid.

Potential stresses on students’ time could be another reason students choose not to take 15 credit-hours. In addition to each credit-hour’s academic workload, many students take on a job to help offset some of their education costs.

Guertin says an advisor’s job is to take each student’s individual circumstances into account when helping them plan out their degree.

“It’s very personalized, it’s about tailoring the plan,” Guertin says. “I suppose if there’s a concern, it’s probably more that 15 to Finish is generic. It’s a campaign. It is that issue of sometimes a student will need to take lower credits or will choose that, and sometimes for a good reason.”

“We are changing mores,” Lubbers says. “This is not always the way people thought about it. Some people think you go to college and you wander. Well, a few people may have parents who pay for them to wander in college – that’s not the reality for most of our students.”

According to state law, the majority of bachelor’s degree programs require 120 credits, and associate’s degrees 60 credits, unless accreditation or licensure requires more than that. The state reduced those numbers two years ago, after discovering that 90 percent of programs in Indiana exceeded the standard, what many refer to as “credit creep.” Officials say programs can’t go further below those limits if they want to maintain academic rigor and quality.

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