Chancellor Hill: 15 to Finish – a simple message to drive college completion

This commentary appeared in the September 30 edition of the Charleston Gazette. 

When preparing for college, there are so many questions students must consider — from which school and major are the right fit, to choosing from financial aid options and mapping out schedules. Through all of this detailed planning, I believe it’s clear that students enter college with a real desire to graduate on time and start their careers as soon as possible.

To help them reach that goal, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission has launched a 15 to Finish campaign — with a simple but critical message: To earn a four-year degree in four years, students must enroll in and complete at least 15 credit hours each semester. (“15 to Finish” is a registered trademark of the University of Hawaii System and is being used with permission by West Virginia through the Complete College America initiative.)

Federal financial aid policies only require students to enroll in 12 credits per semester to be eligible for assistance. Unfortunately, as a result, enrolling in fewer than 15 hours is becoming a norm. In fact, Complete College America estimates that 50 percent of students at public universities across the country are doing so.

But if a student completes just 12 hours each semester, it will take at least five years to earn a four-year degree. This can have a profound impact on both institutional and student costs. And for low-income students, it can impact whether they finish college altogether.

In West Virginia, many students take too much time to complete a degree or drop out of college entirely. According to CCA, less than half (48.2 percent) of West Virginia bachelor’s degree seeking students who began college full-time in 2002 finished a degree in six years. The rate for low-income students was 38.7 percent.

These are discouraging statistics, particularly at a time when West Virginia’s economy needs more college degree holders than ever before.

By 2020, 51 percent of jobs in our state will require an associate degree or higher. Currently, only 27 percent of West Virginians fall in that category.

So the challenge that lies ahead for West Virginia’s public system of colleges and universities is to continue to offer West Virginians affordable access to four-year institutions, while helping more students complete their degrees in a timely manner.

Our 2013-2018 master plan for higher education, Leading the Way: Access, Success, Impact, has set a system-wide goal of increasing the number of students completing 30 or more credit hours during the first academic year of college to 65 percent. In pursuit of this goal, the plan sets forth strategies that include providing clear pathways to degree completion, strengthening advising models and establishing 15 credit hours per semester as the standard for success.

Research shows that students who take at least 15 credit hours are far more likely to graduate than those who take fewer than 15. In addition, our early research in West Virginia found that students who take 15 credits tend to do better academically than those who don’t.

Taking 15 hours each semester also saves students money. If students graduate on time, their overall tuition costs are lower, they will have less student loan debt, and they’ll be able to begin their careers as soon as possible.

The value of a college degree is vast — and it’s growing. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the income gap between college graduates and those without a college degree hit an all-time high last year. In fact, Americans with four-year degrees made, on average, 98 percent more an hour in 2013 than those with no degree.

The faster our students walk across the stage toward their diplomas, the faster they’ll be able to realize the undeniable benefits of a college degree — and ensure that West Virginia can meet the economic demands of today and tomorrow.