State wants to redefine full-time college status

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

Federal financial guidelines require a college student to take 12 credit hours each semester in order to be a labeled full-time student, but more and more education officials say that’s not enough if students want to complete their degrees on time.

West Virginia is joining several states across the country in launching a “15 to Finish” campaign, which urges colleges to promote 15-credit semesters in an attempt to get more students to complete courses in the right time frame and subsequently avoid higher tuition costs and a delayed entry to the workforce.

Fewer than half of students in West Virginia complete a four-year degree within six years, according to Complete College America -- a national nonprofit organization.

Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America, who spoke Tuesday at a 15 to Finish conference in Charleston hosted by the state Higher Education Policy Commission, said by changing the norm from 12-credit semesters to 15-credit semesters, colleges are seeing major academic improvements in students.

“Students are on average taking longer than we have designed the system to provide for them, and the longer it takes, the prospects of their graduation do not go up,” Vandal said. “So what that tells us is we have students who are either perpetually enrolled or, unfortunately, we’re losing them along the way. That is the most profound reason we need to focus on decreasing time for degrees.

“Time is the enemy,” he said. “We know that the longer it takes a student to complete a post-secondary education, there’s more of a likelihood that life will get in the way for those students.”

As part of the campaign, the HEPC hopes to have at least 65 percent of college students in West Virginia taking on 30 credit hours each year by 2018.

An increased course load combined with a more structured schedule, guided pathways and financial incentives for students are helping turnaround student success in the 15 states that have launched similar campaigns, Vandal said.

Most notably, The University of Hawaii’s system, which has undergone a massive, statewide campaign, has increased the number of students taking 15 credit hours each semester by nearly 20 percent in just a few years -- with those first-time freshman enrolled in more courses proving to be more academically successful than those taking less hours.

The results are similar in West Virginia, where students who enroll in 15 credit hours per semester their freshman year outperform those who enrolled in fewer credit hours, according to the HEPC.

Linda Johnsrud, former vice president and provost for the University of Hawaii system, who now works for the University of Texas system, told dozens of West Virginia college representatives Tuesday that one of the biggest hurdles is just getting the word out that just because the Department of Education requires you to take 12 credits to receive financial aid, it doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.

“It’s a norm. It really is a matter of changing the culture. You have to spend a lot of time thinking about how do you change thinking,” Johnsrud said. “I’ve been in higher ed for a long time... When did it happen that we started reporting six-year graduation rates? Now we don’t even report four-year graduation rates as the norm. I don’t know when that shift happened.”

HEPC Chancellor Paul Hill said a change is needed in West Virginia now more than ever.

Less than 30 percent of West Virginia residents hold a degree of any type, but it’s projected that within the next five years, more than half of all jobs in the state will require an associate degree or higher, according to Hill.

“We need to do more. The fact of the matter is that our economy is changing, the opportunities for jobs in the state of West Virginia is changing, and we need more college graduates in the work force. There’s no getting around that issue,” Hill said. “Anything we can do to improve the opportunity for students to move through the system, we must attempt to do.”

The HEPC will officially launch the campaign in January, which will reach out to students and families through social media; prompt college advisors to recommend 15 credit hours to students; and provide professional development to ensure successful implementation.

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