In 2015, the Senate committee that oversees education held a hearing on ways colleges could help students amass less debt. With postsecondary debt hovering at around $1.3 trillion, any little bit can help.

One of the suggestions from Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the committee, appeared counterintuitive: have students take on more coursework earlier in their college tenure. According to a record of the senator’s remarks, he said, “Research shows that students with a full-time course load, meaning 15 credits per semester, who consistently enroll full-time are most likely to graduate. However, a 2013 survey of institutions showed, the majority of so-called full-time college students are not taking the credits needed to finish in four years for a bachelor’s or in two years for an associates degree.”

Today there’s new evidence to suggest bulking up on course credits can be a money saver because students end up completing their degrees faster, cutting down on tuition and other expenses. A report produced by Clive Belfield, Davis Jenkins, and Hana Lahr and published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University finds that students in Tennessee who took on 15 course credits rather than the traditional 12 in their first semester of college pay roughly 10 to 20 percent less per degree in tuition and fees. The researchers’ economic model shows community-college students save $1,560 per degree and four-year students save $12,800.

The financial benefit is a matter of basic math. If students need 60 credits to earn an associate’s degree or 120 for a bachelor’s, taking 15 credits per semester gets them to those thresholds faster. The Columbia University study shows that after two years, students who began their higher-learning experience taking 15-credit course loads had 10 more credits than students who signed up for 12 credits per semester. Students who are behind by 10 credits face additional expenses for course registration, campus fees, and other non-academic purchases. And longer stays in school may delay higher earnings that are the typical reward for earning a degree.

Completion among the 15-credit student group improved, too. Community-college students were 6.4 percent more likely to earn a degree, and the same was true for 11 percent of four-year students. Students who had at least 27 credits after their first year were 19 percent more likely to complete a bachelor’s than those who didn’t.

The heavier workload does not appear to weigh students down academically, either: Students kicking off their college careers with 15 credits had the same pass and fail rates in their courses as students with 12 credits in a term, suggesting the additional three credits didn’t overwhelm them.

Many students choose to take 12 credits because that’s the minimum level needed to receive the maximum dollar award through their Pell grants—government aid largely dedicated to lower-income students.

Because a large number of these students are the first in their families to attend college, they “don’t have the social capital to refer” to the best academic behaviors, said Belfield in an interview. “So if someone says 12 is the norm, you follow that norm. And if some says 15 is the norm, you keep doing 15.”

Belfield said he’s unsure why students are more compelled to take higher course loads after signing up for 15 their first term. It may be college culture or a change in how a student motivates herself. Still, he said, “students basically just lose a few credits every semester” either through failing a course or dropping a class. Students who start with 15 credits may end up with 13, and those beginning with 12 may complete just 10. “There’s a disconnect there as to what you think you’re getting and what you actually end up getting,” he said.

Not all students benefited from the 15-credit boost similarly. Women were more likely than men to complete their degree programs faster. The gains were also strong for what the authors called minority students, but were weaker for students with lower high-school grade-point averages. And past research has suggested course loads exceeding 15 credits do students no favors. Still, the positive effects of 15 credits over 12 are strong enough to have the researchers write “a college advisor should be more concerned about a student who chooses to take 12 or fewer credits each term than about one who enters with a mediocre high school record.” Nor is it the case that all students and their college counselors select the best courses to earn their degrees efficiently. A Complete College America report noted that students regularly complete their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees with more credits than they needed.

But too few courses may persuade students to quit on higher ed, too. “If you take 12 and 12 (credits) in your first year, you probably end up with 20 credits,” Belfield said of a community-college student. “You might think to yourself, this is going to take me three solid years to get through this, and I can’t do that, so I’m just going to drop out.”

This new research bolsters the studies to which Senator Alexander referred in the hearings last year. Part-time community-college students in a 2012 study were shown to be less likely (by 8 to 13 percent) to complete a degree than full-time students. Another study that reviewed campuses that encouraged students to sign up for 15 credits instead of 12 had promising completion data. There’s also a campaign called “15 to Finish,” inspired by Hawaii’s rosy results in its two-year and four-year colleges, to compel more places of higher learning to steer students to the larger set of courses their first term.

While finishing degrees faster and spending less to graduate are welcome signs to researchers and advocates, some worry about the impulse to mandate that students take 15 credits instead of 12. That goal may prove too burdensome to the millions of students who work part- or full-time and may also head households. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a scholar on higher education, wrote in an essay earlier this year asking what “will happen if it comes at an additional price associated with being pushed to take more credits than they otherwise would have? Is this positive motivation, or a punitive approach driven by political requirements to ration financial aid?”


This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.