Sunday, September 07, 2014


60 Divided by 12 Equals…

What’s a full-time student?

The Community College Research Center, of which I am a fan, issued a new report called “Redefining Full-Time in College,” by Serena Klempin.  It’s an overview of the various strategies that different colleges and universities have used to encourage students to take fifteen or more credits per semester, rather than twelve.  (Alternately, some have nudged students towards thirty or more per year by using summer and January terms to supplement semesters.)  The concept is based on a simple but important arithmetical mismatch: the Feds and most colleges define ‘full-time’ as 12 credits, but if you take and pass 12 credits per semester, it will take you five semesters to earn a two year degree, or five years to earn a four-year degree.

In other words, “full-time” on a semester basis is less than “full-time” for normative completion.  

Naturally, the disconnect leads to issues.

When you combine a miscalculation of “full-time” with some developmental courses and maybe a stopout for life events, then a graduate shows up in our “performance” numbers as attrition.  From the student’s perspective, the disconnect is a sort of slow-motion sense of betrayal.  If I took a full-time schedule and passed everything, a student might well ask, why is it taking longer than it’s supposed to?

The study is well worth reading, though it’s inconclusive, particularly from a community college perspective.  

It’s possible, for example, to set up tuition and pricing to encourage heavier courseloads.  When I was at DeVry, tuition was per-credit up to twelve, and then free up to sixteen.  That “free” fifth course was an incentive for the student to load up on classes.  As Klempin correctly points out, though, “plateau pricing” is vulnerable to a charge of favoring students who are already relatively advantaged anyway.  Students whose work and life commitments make heavier courseloads impossible won’t benefit from such schemes, and to the extent that they require raising prices on the “first” twelve credits, could conceivably be hurt by them.  The students who are likeliest to benefit are those whose work and life schedules are clear enough to allow heavy courseloads.  In the real world, that group skews more affluent than other students.

I suspect that for students with more demanding external commitments, we’d get better results by allowing a more even schedule across a twelve-month year.  Breaking the year into more and smaller bits, with fewer courses at any one time, can still speed completion; this is the “30 credit year” model, as opposed to the “15 credit semester” model.  Nine credits in Fall, three in January, nine in Spring, and nine in Summer will get you to 30 in a year, without ever having a wildly heavy semester.  (Of course, if you go with a competency-based model, you could get around credits altogether.)  This approach works better with year-round jobs and year-round parenting.  But it doesn’t work terribly well with financial aid, which is still largely based on the traditional academic year.  Year-round Pell came and went too quickly for its potential impact to be realized.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective institutional “nudge” towards heavier courseloads that didn’t just favor the already favored?  Is there an easier way?

"Nine credits in Fall, three in January, nine in Spring, and nine in Summer will get you to 30 in a year, without ever having a wildly heavy semester."

Ummm... no.
@Anon 5:54 - Hmm? 9 + 3 + 9 + 9 = 30. I suppose "heavy" depends on the individual student and the choice of credits. At least a 9 credit semester is less heavy than the same 9 credits plus another course.
And where are you going to find the faculty willing to teach this year-round schedule?

In theory, quarter systems allow something similar, yet at the community college/regional college teaching load of 3-3-3 or 4-4-4 (or higher, if they're teaching overloads to pay their healthcare premiums) you get burned out faculty who can barely form word endings when late May rolls around... and then you want to stick them back in the classroom for another 2-3 months teaching a full load too?

If rewarding the already-privileged is a concern, giving a special scholarship for low-income or self-supporting (i.e. nontraditional) students who are taking 15 or 18 hours that reduces their costs to the cost for a 12-hour load would seem to solve that issue.
My government loans model and the university model had a similar mismatch to what you described. While a student, I found it to be an advantage, not a frustration. In my field, 5 courses is often seen as academic suicide if any of your courses have labs and seminars (many science courses in my field do). In my 3rd year, I had figured this out, so I dropped to 4 courses, from 5. My program advisor could not figure out for the life of him why so many science students avoided lab courses and why so many went from 5 to 4 courses.

From the government standpoint, I was still eligible for full-time student loans, but I would take 5 years to complete my degree instead of 4. The difference it made to my stress levels and overall mental stamina was incredible, and I would recommend (what you call) the 12-credit/semester pathway over the 15 credit pathway. Sticking around school for an extra year was a minor issue compared to the benefit of enjoying your classes so much more.

Enjoying classes more also hinged on there being an extensive summer break to recharge and focus on other things. This 9+9+9+3 model you proposed wouldn't have worked for me. At all. I likely would have shown up somewhere in your attrition column if my uni had done the 30 credits/year model.
This is an issue that I think my CC handles very well. When it comes to registration and tuition, we consider the Winter Session as an extension of the Fall Semester and the Summer Session as an extension of the Spring Semester, which means that students can spread out their full time status over both the semester and winter or summer session. Thus, a student could take 9 credits in the Fall and 6 credits in the Winter and still be considered full time (since the Fall+Winter > 12 credits).

This also allows students being funded by aid that is only available during Fall/Spring to take Winter and Summer classes (since Winter/Summer is an extension of the Fall/Spring, aid that is paid for the Spring semester can be used to register for both Spring and Summer classes).

Our only rule, as far as I know, is that you cannot take more than 8 credits in the Winter/Summer. Honestly, I don't know if we let students take more than 18 credits in a semester/session combo (say 18 in the Fall and 6 in the Winter), but if so, not many students take advantage.
The model of 15+15+0 was for an era when summer jobs in factories or construction could pay for a lot of schooling and you didn't work during the semester. This is unrealistic at most places today and certainly not relevant at a CC. I know that even universities try to get freshmen to limit themselves to 12 credits to increase retention. Surviving that semester is crucial, particularly if big time football is present on that campus.

To answer your question, we do not encourage students to take a heavier load (by which I mean more classes at the same time). We encourage them to take a 12+12+6 or 12+12+9 load and some of that first 12 might be supplemental instruction in math or english for underprepared students. (Those working 30 to 40 hours per week are told to got with 9 or 6 per semester.) This is in a system with two equal semesters and a somewhat shorter summer semester.


Summer Pell was fantastic. My impression is that students need a reliable floor from Pell on a year-round basis rather than feast and famine.

Keeping anything the same for 5 years would be fantastic.

Something that allows a lighter load for students working more hours, that is, admits what should be obvious about part-time students, would be fantastic. They should be able to get half the support for twice as long.
I didn't understand Chris' comment at 11:51 PM.

I've taught in an 11-week (10 + 1 finals) quarter system that could run consistently around the calendar for 44 weeks a year with breaks for Christmas, Spring, and bookends on the summer. Although summer was basically only grad students and athletes at that time, it worked smoothly. There was much less burnout than I see in 15 to 16 week semesters, on both sides of the lectern.

Pay attention and you will see that everyone is ready to take a break after 10 weeks of the semester.

Its only flaw was that school started several weeks after football season, which was enough to kill it. You can't have games with no band and empty student seats. Unprofitable.

Trimesters don't work as well because of arithmetic: They need to be 16 weeks (15+1) so you end up with 48 teaching weeks and only 4 off. You get more into a trimester than a quarter, but that is what makes scheduling impossible and you end up with a shorter summer semester or some other compromise that really does lead to burnout.
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