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?