Martine Howard, chair of languages and communications at Camden County College, was frustrated to see students return to campus year after year without graduating—or not return at all. She watched the pattern repeat itself over her nearly three decades teaching at the two-year college in New Jersey.
So, when it was time to choose a dissertation topic for her education doctorate, a new program in community college leadership at New Jersey City University, Howard wanted her project to focus on getting students through Camden County College at a timelier pace.
“Seeing students staying there for years and years and some of them just disappearing, I’ve always felt like, this is a two-year institution. Why can’t students finish in two years?” she said.
Last fall, she launched a “15 to Finish” campaign at the college, a now popular strategy—first implemented at the University of Hawai‘i in 2011—to encourage more students to take 15 credits per semester, rather than the minimum 12 credits for full-time status, to help them graduate more quickly. The objective of these informational campaigns, which have since spread to hundreds of colleges and universities, is to make sure students are explicitly told the academic and financial benefits of graduating on time and know how to plan out their schedules to meet that goal. The campaign at Camden has since significantly increased the percentage of students taking 15 credits, including gains among low-income students and students of color, and has led to long-lasting changes at the college. Howard’s dissertation was also selected for the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate Dissertation in Practice of the Year Award.
Howard noted that 9 percent of full-time students at Camden County College graduate within two years, modestly better than the national rate. Only 5 percent of full-time community college students graduate in two years nationwide, according to data from Complete College America, an organization focused on lifting college completion rates that popularized the “15 to Finish” approach.
“An extra year in college, according to the research, can cost you thousands of dollars by delaying opportunity wages and retirement savings,” she said.
Dhanfu Elston, chief of staff and senior vice president for strategy at Complete College America, said taking a substantial number of credits per semester, particularly in the first semester, and moving more speedily toward graduation, also has academic value.
“There’s just that excitement of making progress,” he said. “If you can show students that they are moving, making semester-by-semester steps to degree completion, there’s an energy that comes along with that.”
As a part of the campaign at Camden, Howard conducted training with 53 academic advisers, department chairs and academic program coordinators about the advantages of taking 15 credits per semester and how to convey that message to students. Presentations about issue were also included in new student orientations, and the benefits of a 15-credit semester were prominently advertised on the college’s website, fliers around campus and in social media posts from the college.
Administrators celebrated the results. Comparing enrollment numbers from 2019 to 2021—when instruction modes were the most similar, given the pandemic—the share of full-time students taking 15 credits or more rose from 24.2 percent to 37.7 percent.
The proportion of Hispanic students taking at least 15 credits increased substantially from 12.8 percent to 25.5 percent. Full-time students receiving Pell Grants, federal financial aid for low-income students, also took 15 credits at higher rates. The share of these students taking a full course load increased from 20 percent to 32.3 percent.
David Edwards, executive vice president for academic and student affairs at the college, said the effort was campuswide, with student affairs staff, academic deans and administrators working with Howard to convey a consistent message to students, and “the results speak for themselves.”
“With the 15 to Finish model embedded in our recruitment, admission and advisement, there was an immediate benefit,” said Edwards. “The numbers increased dramatically. We’re very proud of that. That gets our attention.”
He noted that the campaign not only has academic and financial benefits for students, but continuing it may lead to funding gains for the college as well. New Jersey is implementing a funding formula in fiscal year 2023 that bases 75 percent of state aid to community colleges on their enrollment and completion rates. That percentage includes new metrics that reward colleges for enrolling and graduating students from underrepresented backgrounds. Edwards is hopeful the new initiative will raise graduation rates, and in turn, increase state funding to the college.
He added that lessons learned from Howard’s dissertation project have since been incorporated into the college’s day-to-day routines. For example, recruiters for the college now bring “15 to Finish” informational materials with them to high school visits, and advisers and faculty members continue to talk with students about the benefits of full course loads.
He sees these efforts are a part of the college’s broader guided pathways model, which helps to ensure students take the required courses to earn their credentials without getting waylaid or accumulating excess credits.
The 15 to Finish approach isn’t without its critics. The campaigns have been critiqued by some higher education leaders as overly simplistic.
Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, an organization focused on community college student success, said community colleges are increasingly moving away from the two-semester framework for an academic year and exploring the potential of ideas like shorter academic terms or encouraging winter and summer coursework to keep students on track. She added that not all full course loads are equal. For a 15 to Finish campaign to help students, they need to enroll in “productive credits” that advance them toward a degree.
She also said that the messaging of 15 to Finish campaigns can make students feel like they have to choose between working and attending college.
“It creates a false choice for students between school and work,” she said. And in a strong labor market, where there are ample job openings that offer decent wages, work is likely to win out if students believe they can’t do both. “There’s no way you can advise a student to do 15 credits and think that they’re also going to be able to work at the same time.”
Elston said Complete College America has “evolved” in its messaging around 15 to Finish campaigns to recognize that taking a full course load isn’t feasible for all students and the main goal is to help them graduate at a quicker pace.
The 15 to Finish initiative “was never about every single student taking 15 credit hours per semester,” he said. “We’re just trying to help institutions realize, and help their students understand, that there are a variety of ways that they can get to on-time completion or at least degree completion with reduced time.”
Despite concerns, Stout did credit the 15 to Finish movement for getting community college leaders thinking about the “momentum that’s required for students to stay.”
Davis Jenkins, senior researcher at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College at Columbia University, said community college administrators are increasingly focused on helping students develop plans to finish their degrees more quickly. He believes campus leaders have neglected the issue for years and that inattention to students’ early momentum has contributed to enrollment declines over the last decade.
“In general, community colleges don’t pay attention to student momentum,” he said. “Time to degree is critical to all students, but especially students with lower resources, that have families and lots of obligations outside college, which is typical of community colleges.” The longer it takes to earn a degree, the more likely it is that “life intervenes” and students confront situations that prompt them to stop out.
He added that many students don’t know taking 12 credits per semester won’t get them a degree in two years, and in general, part-time or full-time students who are poorly informed about what classes they need to take and how long it’ll take them to earn their degrees are more likely to get demoralized.
“Colleges are hemorrhaging these students,” he said. “And they’re wasting talent. It’s an equity issue. It’s a workforce issue.”
Edwards agreed that without help devising a plan for their schedules, and encouragement to take a full load, students “drift.”
“And typically, they drift out the door,” he said. “They exhaust all of their financial aid on courses that don’t apply … and they’re no closer to actual degree attainment than they could have been had they stayed very focused and worked with the college.”
The college’s 15 to Finish campaign is one of the ways he believes the college can prevent that from happening in the years to come.
“It is one of those initiatives that’s going to stay with us,” he said. “Not all innovations have a lasting power. We believe that this does.”