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.