This post is part of an occasional series examining how California can learn from policies in other states.
While 57 percent of students at California State University (CSU) earn a bachelor’s degree, only 19 percent of first-time freshmen graduate in four years. Taking longer to graduate increases the cost of the degree and delays entry into the workforce.
One reason students are not graduating in four years is because they are not taking a full course load of 15 units—about five classes—per term. For financial aid purposes, students are considered full-time if they enroll in 12 units per term—about four classes. But taking 12 units means taking an extra year to graduate. Students have many reasons for taking less than a full load: family obligations, employment, inadequate preparation for the rigor of college courses, or the cost of extra books. It is also possible that students do not realize they need 15 units per term to graduate in four years. UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program found that 86 percent of freshmen nationwide believe they will graduate in four years, but only about 55 percent actually do so. CSU may be able to learn from 15 to Finish, a campaign adopted by the University of Hawai‘i in 2011 to increase student enrollment in 15 units per term and increase their four-year graduation rates.
Policy: University of Hawai‘i’s 15 to Finish Campaign
In 2010, the University of Hawai‘i system (UH) launched the Hawai‘i Graduation Initiative (HGI) to increase college participation and completion. One of HGI’s strategies is a 15 to Finish campaign to encourage university and community college students to enroll in 15 units a term so they can graduate in four years. Other HGI strategies include creating block or cohort scheduling so that groups of students take the same courses together; reducing summer tuition; and developing academic roadmaps to help freshmen plan their course sequences to graduate on-time. The 15 to Finish campaign’s communication strategy highlights the need to take 15 credits per term and the benefits of graduating in four years in television commercials, informational handouts, and student orientations. It also markets the additional three units as “free” because tuition is the same for 12 and 15 units.
The early results of UH’s 15 to Finish campaign look promising. Between 2011 and 2013, enrollment in 15 units per term rose by about 5 percentage points, to 25 percent of the UH student population enrolled in 15 units. More important, the system’s four-year graduation rate has risen 7.2 percentage points since the graduating class of 2012, to 25 percent. At CSU, the four-year graduation rate has improved just 2.9 percentage points, to 19 percent, over the same period.
Lessons for California
CSU’s 2015 Graduation Initiative was successful in raising six-year graduation rates. As the system launches a new 2025 Graduation Initiative, which focuses in part on increasing four-year graduation rates, campuses should consider implementing a media strategy to inform students about the three “free” units per term that will help them graduate on-time. One campus, Cal State LA, has already started: it launched a 15 to Finish campaign in August 2015, in anticipation of its transition to a semester calendar.
A system-wide 15 to Finish campaign could also persuade some campuses to stop discouraging students from taking 15 units if they work. It would be more helpful for campuses to inform students they need 15 units a semester to graduate in four years and give them estimates of the number of homework hours created by this course load, so they can make their own decisions about how many units to take each term.
This kind of messaging could also help UC and the community colleges increase on-time completion rates. It could be a relatively simple way to create more room for new students and increase the number of college graduates in our state.
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