The Elusive Goal of On-Time Graduation
A surprisingly tiny minority of U.S. college students actually get their four-year degrees in four years—but a pioneering program at the University of Hawaii wants to change that.
HONOLULU—Angie Anderson loves being a college student. She just doesn’t want to be one forever.
Anderson is a double major in English and theater in the honors program at the University of Hawaii. She commutes an hour each way every day to the campus in Manoa, works as a peer advisor, tutors student athletes, and has a third job performing on a “pirate ship” for tourists. She’s also part of a student improv group whose shows start as late as 11 p.m. to accommodate members with commitments like hers.
“When people hear about my schedule, they say, ‘When do you sleep?’” a peppy Anderson said, smiling, during a rare break. “At the end of the day, I always ask myself, ‘Am I happy? As I’m napping in my car?’ And I am.”
She’s also on track to accomplish something a surprisingly tiny minority of American college and university students these days manage to achieve: graduating with a four-year degree in four years.
Anderson is part of a program the University of Hawaii is helping to pioneer called 15-to-Finish, whose objective is to push students to take the 15 credit hours per semester they need to get through college on time. Most bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits, which works out to 15 credits per semester, two semesters per year, for four years. Yet most students take only 12 credits per semester, which means they immediately fall behind.
“From the time you select in your first semester to take 12 credits, you are already on a five-year plan,” said Blake Johnson, a spokesman for Complete College America, which works to increase the proportion of people nationwide with college and university degrees.
But 12 credits is the threshold at which students get the maximum Pell Grant, the principal form of federal direct financial aid, which may discourage students from taking more credits. Pell money also can’t be used to pay for courses in the summers, when students could catch up. Most state financial-aid programs also cover a maximum of just 12 credits per semester. And few colleges and universities encourage students to exceed that number. Many charge them extra if they do.
“There’s almost an on-time penalty,” said Johnson. “It’s dumbfounding.”
Spending extra time in college is also very, very expensive. Every additional year a bachelor’s-degree-seeking student spends in college costs an average of $68,153 in additional tuition, fees, and living expenses, plus forgone income, Complete College America estimates.
“For me, it’s a personal cost,” said Anderson, who is paying her own way through college. “I don’t want to put that burden on my parents.”
Speeding students to the finish line is part of the idea behind an Obama administration proposal to award recipients of federal Pell Grants an additional “on-track bonus” of $300 for taking 15 credits per semester or more. The proposal is part of a $2 billion expansion of the grant program in the president’s newly released budget plan that, if passed, would take effect next year. The administration estimates that 2.3 million students would be eligible for the bonus program. A few state financial-aid programs have already added rewards of as much as $1,100 per year for students who take 15 credits or more per semester.
For now, however, most of them don’t. Only 29 percent of students at community colleges take 15 credits or more per semester, and about half at four-year institutions, according to Complete College America.
One result is that just 5 percent of community-college students graduate with two-year degrees in two years and about 36 percent of four-year private and flagship public university and college students with bachelor’s degrees graduate in four. At non-flagship four-year public universities, the on-time graduation rate is 19 percent.
“The culture of education is, 12 hours is full-time,” said Risa Dickson, the vice president for academic affairs in the University of Hawaii System. “But the math doesn’t add up.”
Students, despite being the ones most affected by this perplexing disconnect, often aren’t aware of it. About 86 percent of freshmen in an annual national survey conducted by a center at UCLA say they think they’ll graduate on time, when only about a third of that proportion ultimately do it.
A 2011 agreement between Obama and Congress to cut spending also blocked students from getting Pell Grants for courses in the summer, when they could add on additional credits. Restoring so-called summer Pell is another part of the president’s proposal for next year—and one of the few for which there appears to be bipartisan support. Republican Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has introduced a bill to do that, too. Some governors and legislators are also experimenting with state-level reform efforts to boost the on-time-graduation rate.
But other barriers remain. Some students just can’t handle taking 15 credits per semester, or are working so many hours that they don’t have time. Others aren’t in such a rush to finish. Still others find themselves shut out of courses required for their majors, which aren’t taught when they need them.
That’s one of the things that’s held up John Saviano, an electrical-engineering major now in the third of what he expects to be five years at the University of Hawaii. Though electrical engineering requires a minimum of 122 credits, versus the 120 for most other majors, he could have completed those within four years if some core courses were available when there was time free in his schedule, he said. Spending more time than he anticipated, Saviano said, “means I’m going to have to make some cutbacks or take a job to pay for the extra tuition.”
Meanwhile, Jason Dela Cruz is majoring in molecular cell biology at the university with a minor in Filipino language, and also in his third of what now is likely to take at least five years. “There’s stress to do extracurricular activities, to just enjoy my time in college,” Dela Cruz said. “You can’t always get the classes; there’s a biology class I need to take for my major, and it’s only offered in the fall. And I think I’m actually better off than most people.”
Since Dela Cruz is paying for his college education solely with loans, he said, he has to work to keep himself from worrying about the impact of delaying graduation. “I always say to myself: ‘That’s a problem for future Jason,’” he said
Hawaii has become a testing ground for the effectiveness of speeding students up: Its public schools are run statewide, and its community colleges are branches of its public university, creating a kind of closed ecosystem to examine the impact of such innovations.
It also has a particularly long way to go. The pace of life on the islands is so unhurried that it’s given rise to the term “Hawaiian time,” which some suspect frustrates officials’ efforts to hasten students along to their degrees. “That whole Hawaiian-time thing also means people think they don’t have to go to class,” argued the University of Hawaii student Megan Tabata, a marketing major who is part of the 15-to-Finish program.
Only about one in 10 of the students at the University of Hawaii Manoa campus graduated in four years in 2000. Meanwhile, the proportion of working-age adults in the state who hold some sort of a postsecondary degree is 43 percent—slightly higher than the national average, but far behind the state’s goal of 55 percent by 2025. At the current rate of progress, the figure would be far from meeting that goal.
When 15-to-Finish started in 2012, Hawaii’s four-year graduation rate was still well below the national average, at less than 20 percent. But by last year it was up to 28 percent, the university says—and the proportion of students completing at least 15 credits per semester in their freshman years has risen from 49 percent to 55 percent.
There still are many obstacles to speeding students up. Like Dela Cruz and Saviano, some have trouble scheduling classes when they need them. Hawaii and some other states and institutions are using new software to try to anticipate demand and avoid that problem, though they often need to overcome the resistance from faculty who don’t like changing their routines.
“The culture of higher education is that academics have managed the schedule,” said Dickson. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s time to revisit how that works for the students.”
Some degrees, including nursing and engineering, require more than 120 credits. Many students who change majors or wander into classes they don’t actually need end up not with too few credits, but churning their wheels in school because they take too many non-essential ones. In a national survey of students at a few dozen colleges and universities, 20 percent said they were behind because they changed their majors, and 18 percent because they had to work while enrolled. “For many students, going to college is like running a race without a defined ending point,” said Dickson.
Universities also may be overly protective, said Cathy Buyarski, an associate dean for student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, or IUPUI. “We had a very strong culture of, ‘We really want to support students and make sure they’re successful,’” Buyarski recalled. “Advisors were erring on the side of being very cautious, so when they met with a student, they would start at 12 credits. Their concern was, ‘Gosh, what if the student can’t handle 15 credits?’”
When IUPUI adopted Hawaii’s 15-to-Finish model, in 2012, however, the proportion of students who successfully completed 15 credits per semester shot from 28 percent to 64 percent, Buyarski said. “Now we’re starting with the assumption that they’re great students and they can do this, which to me is what educators should be doing,” she said. “If you set the bar high, they will achieve.”
That’s what’s happened in Hawaii, too, where students who take 15 credits per semester get better grades and are less likely to drop out than those who take 12, regardless of their level of preparation based on high school rank, SAT scores, and other measures. “I think what happens is it forces you to focus and manage your time better,” Dickson said. “When somebody decides they want to get done in four years, they’re going to prioritize that.”
Universities and colleges in 22 states are now trying some variation of the 15-to-Finish idea, including Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia. Kentucky and Nevada have launched marketing campaigns explaining the idea to students; Hawaii promotes 15-to-Finish—a name now in the process of being trademarked— in TV commercials and other ads.
“The first part is telling students what they need to know,” said Johnson of Complete College America. “We recognize that not every student can take 15 credits, but we do think there’s utility in telling students what happens if you choose not to.”
South Dakota, the Montana University System, and several institutions in Georgia and Indiana have changed their tuition policies so 15 credits per semester—and, in some cases, up to 18—costs the same as 12; Indiana University will do that starting in the fall, joining Purdue, Ball State, and Indiana State. To encourage students to catch up in the summers, IUPUI gives Indiana residents a 25 percent discount on summer courses. The University of Hawaii offers free textbooks to students in random drawings open only to students in the 15-to-Finish program.
South Dakota also has added a scholarship for students who complete 30 credits per academic year. Under its Fly in 4 campaign, Temple University pays students up to $2,000 if they agree to work no more than 15 hours a week and pledge to follow a series of directions meant to help them finish in four years; if they still can’t, the university promises to cover the cost of the additional time they need. And a program in Texas called B-on-Time offers complete forgiveness of loans issued by the state to undergraduates who complete their bachelor’s degrees in four years with at least a B average—though that program is being phased out because fewer students used it than projected.
Not everyone benefits equally from this push. IUPUI has found the students who take at least 15 credits per semester tend to be wealthier, have fewer outside commitments, and are more academically prepared than those who take 12, and are more likely to be female and live on campus.
Some critics of the emphasis on speed also contend that college is a time when students should be able to find themselves, which may mean slowing down.
Dickson agreed—to a point. “That’s what college is about,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that students should be doing it for six or seven years.”
As for Anderson, she said she may take a year off after college “after pushing myself for four” and relax a bit before going on to law school. “There’s this misconception that everything’s a race,” she said, headed off to her next class. “It’s not.”
This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.