Tuesday, April 25, 2017
15 to Finish: From Skepticism to Scale

Two years ago, I wrote my first blog post for Complete College America, “Building A Culture of Timely Graduation: The Story of Purdue University Calumet.” CCA has, for some time, known of the power of 15 credits, modeled by the University of Hawai’i’s signature 15 to Finish campaign. We’ve showcased innovative approaches and put higher education leaders on our stages to tell their 15 to Finish stories. But even more than that, we knew this powerful strategy could be scaled across the country, and we committed to making it happen.

To this day, my approach to implementing and scaling 15 to Finish across our Alliance is most influenced by my experience as a chief retention officer at Purdue University Calumet (now Purdue Northwest) – an urban, regional campus with large populations of low-income, racial minority, and first-generation students. During my time at the institution, I had heard Hawaii’s story and seen their success with increasing on-time completion; however, I was a skeptic.

Just like so many of my campus colleagues across the country, my initial response to 15 to Finish was that this would never work for my students. But I decided to test my flawed hypothesis. As I presented to a room full of students and parents at new student orientation, I conducted a show-of-hands poll to gauge the level of commitment to on-time completion. I asked the first-year students, “How many of you plan to take more than 12 credit hours during your first semester?” To no surprise, only about one-tenth of the students raised their hand. I then followed up with the question that would forever shape my opinion of the campaign, “How many of you plan to graduate in four years?” Nearly the entire room raised their hands.

No matter the students’ backgrounds, work plans, or family obligations, the vast majority wanted to graduate on time, and they believed they would. Unfortunately, our institution – like so many others – as failing to let our students know what it takes to get there. At that moment, I knew we could do better. It was just a matter of recognizing that it wasn’t just on the students, it was on us as institutional leaders to create structures that would aid student success.

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Over the past 9 months, we have partnered with impatient reformers, state leaders, and the academic advising community to see that important work come to fruition across our Alliance, empowering students and staff with the information needed to make better decisions about course loads and the path to graduation day. Through a series of in-state convenings and meetings, we have highlighted the core concept that “full-time” enrollment, doesn’t necessarily mean “on-time” graduation. With standard requirements of 60 credits for an associate degree and 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree, taking 15 credits per semester (30 credits per year) is the only way to ensure on-time completion.

Additionally, we have been clear that not all students will decide to pursue on-time credit accumulation; however, EVERY student should be exposed to information and an academic map that communicate the importance and value of graduating on time. The most common response from participants at CCA 15 to Finish events has been, “This makes sense. How quickly can we get started?” Key insights and learnings from members of the NACADA: The Global Advising Community led to CCA’s creation of free, open-source campaign materials and presentations that allow ease of implementation and promotion on campuses.

As a result of our efforts, 14 states are scaling and more than 200 institutions are now implementing 15 to Finish, putting thousands and thousands of students on track for on-time graduation. All in, 25 states have 15 to Finish efforts happening within them.

The most encouragement comes directly from the new wave of implementers:

Zora Mulligan


“We are seeing growing interest from our colleges and universities about the 15 to Finish initiative as one way we can increase degree completion and help keep college affordable for Missouri families. The 15 to Finish message resonates with students and parents and helps admissions counselors and academic and financial aid advisors underscore the benefits of graduating on time.”

– Commissioner Zora Mulligan, Missouri Department of Higher Education


Commissioner's Headshot


“The 15 to Finish initiative, referred to as “Think 30″in our state, has brought timely completion to the forefront of the post-secondary education discourse in Louisiana. This initiative provides a framework that has served to inform best practices and policies regarding the importance of timely completion and its potential impact on the postsecondary community — and most importantly, our students.”

– Commissioner Joseph Rallo, Louisiana Board of Regents


Scrolling through the #15toFinish hashtag on Twitter and seeing the campaign being implemented in advising offices (or listening to my 8-year-old son ask his college-aged babysitter if she is enrolled in 15 credit hours) tells us that we are well on our way to creating true guided pathways for students and their families. We can definitely feel, see, and track the momentum. The culture of on-time graduation is becoming the norm across the country. Our students and country demand it, and CCA will continue to deliver it.

posted by Dhanfu Elston


Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Rhode Island Governor Thinking Big About College Completion and Affordability

We’ve all seen the statistics: 42 million Americans now carry student loan debt, a daunting economic anchor that totals 1.3 trillion dollars for borrowers. And here in Rhode Island, students graduate with more than $35,000 on average in student loan debt – the second highest amount in the country.

It is a crisis we must address, but as Complete College America has asserted on many occasions, affordability initiatives must go further than simply providing tuition-free college; efforts must instead be designed to ensure students actually complete their degrees and enter the workforce. In other words, scholarship programs must be built for completion.

Fortunately for Rhode Islanders, Governor Raimondo is thinking big about how to address these challenges, providing leadership that is focused not just on affordability, but also on her goals of “radically increasing the number of college graduates in the state” and ensuring residents have the opportunity to compete in a 21st Century economy.

“Rhode Island may be our nation’s smallest state, but Governor Raimondo is setting a big example for leaders around the nation.”

Unlike many other free-college proposals, Governor Raimondo’s plan, which would cover the cost of a two-year degree or half the cost of a four-year degree, includes eligibility requirements that illustrate an uncommon and outsized understanding of what it will take for Rhode Island to produce more graduates and reduce costs in the process. Simply put, this plan may be the best we’ve seen.

The fact is that far too few students, even those considered full time, take the number of credits needed each year to graduate on time. The result: community college students in Rhode Island take an average of four years to earn their two-year degree, and students at four-year institutions often take an extra semester. That extra time on campus means thousands of dollars more in tuition and fees, room and board, debt, and foregone wages. And that’s just for the students who make it to graduation day; many will drop out, racking up debt without the benefits of obtaining a college degree.

Under Governor Raimondo’s plan, student success and completion are the priority. Four-year students would be required to complete 60 credits by the end of their sophomore year in order to receive the tuition waiver – a smart move considering research shows that students who take at least 30 credits per year have higher GPAs, better retention rates, and an increased likelihood of completing their degrees.

Four-year students would also be required to declare a major prior to eligibility in the program. We know that the more credits students take within their program of study, and the earlier they do so, the more momentum they have heading toward graduation. Rather than meandering through coursework and racking up excess credits, students would be incentivized to get on track, stay on track, and ultimately graduate.

For community college students, eligibility would also require full-time attendance, and data from around the country makes clear why: part-time students are far less likely to complete their degrees, even when given double the time to do so. If Rhode Island wants more graduates, more students need to attend full time.

Let’s be clear, though: students aren’t the only ones who need to change their behavior. Institutions must also take steps to ensure on-time completion is the norm and not the exception on their campuses. They can do this by changing the way they deliver remedial education, providing clear and timely academic pathways that lead to a degree, structuring schedules so that students can go full-time even if they are balancing a family and work with school, and giving students the support and guidance needed to reach their goals. Accordingly, any additional tax dollars provided to institutions for implementation of this plan must be tied to real changes like these that are proven to produce more graduates.

Rhode Island may be our nation’s smallest state, but Governor Raimondo is setting a big example for leaders around the nation. More important, she is providing Rhode Island taxpayers more bang for their hard-earned buck: college educations that are more affordable and more likely.

posted by Tom Sugar


Sunday, July 10, 2016
Year-Round Pell is Important, But It’s Not Enough

The higher education community was hopeful when, last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee put forth a funding bill that would bring back year-round (or summer) Pell. But just last week, the House Appropriations Committee shared a draft bill that does not include the provision.

Not only should Congress fund year-round Pell, they should go further and ensure the program is built for many more students to complete their degrees on time. Year-round Pell is a critical tool to help more students progress toward a degree; however, year-round Pell, by itself, is not enough. Students certainly need the Pell Grant to be more flexible and available, but they also need the program to provide a clear path to on-time graduation, which it currently lacks. That’s why in our new policy brief, On-Time Pell: Maintain Access, Ensure Completion, Complete College America (CCA) outlines a plan for the creation of an “on-time” status for the Pell Grant. By leveraging the expanded flexibility of year-round Pell and matching it with a clear and guided pathway toward on-time completion, we can transform the expectation for both full-time and part-time students, communicating clearly that on-time graduation is feasible. On-time Pell, as proposed by Complete College America, would enable students to complete 30 funded credits per year in whichever enrollment pattern works for them.

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Currently, the Pell Grant covers only 12 credits per term or 24 credits per year, but to graduate on time, students must complete 30 credits per year. Pell Grant recipients who currently choose to enroll in 30 credits are forced to cover the remaining six credits without financial support from the grant. On-time Pell communicates to students what is needed to graduate on time and sets an expectation for both full-time and part-time students to do so.

This proposal does not change the per-student funding level; it simply allows students to draw down their lifetime Pell eligibility more quickly. It does not change the definition of full-time or harm any other Pell population; it simply adds another status designation for students to better understand what it takes to graduate and how to get there.

Why has Complete College America, a state policy organization, come out with a federal policy proposal? For two reasons: First, most states and institutions adhere to the federal definition of full-time as 12 credits for their financial aid programs and would likely follow suit if a new federal standard were set to encourage on-time completion. Second, Complete College America’s work across our 40 state and consortium members (and down into systems and institutions) is directly impacted by the current limitations of Pell. The creation of an on-time Pell status would go a long way to both support and spur efforts by states and institutions to help their students graduate in a timely manner.

Year-round Pell is important, but at this moment, when the higher education community is standing up to support it, we need to use this opportunity to go further and ensure significantly more students can earn their degrees on time.

posted by Julie Johnson


Monday, March 30, 2015
Building a Culture of Timely Graduation: The Story of Purdue University Calumet

In his first post for the blog, Complete College America Vice President Dhanfu Elston, who previously served as Executive Director for Student Success and Transition at Purdue University Calumet, shares how he and his colleagues implemented CCA’s Game Changers to drastically improve the number of Purdue Calumet students who are on track for timely completion.

Since the launch of the Complete College America “Game Changer” strategies at Purdue University Calumet, the university has more than doubled the percentage of students enrolled in 15+ credits during their first semester (27% in 2012 to 66% in 2014). Fall 2014 retention for first-time, full-time students increased by 4.7 percentage points. Overall, more students are on track to complete on time, and Calumet is better positioned for long-term sustainability in student success.

Complete College America’s publication, Time is the Enemy, highlighted the critical importance of evaluating students’ progress and time to graduation. Administrators at Purdue University Calumet utilized this information to reframe conversations with students and parents and showcase the potential return on investment when we make on-time graduation a priority.

About: Purdue University Calumet (PUC) is a Carnegie-classified public master’s university, with an undergraduate enrollment of 8,600 students and a six-year graduation rate of 31%. Purdue Calumet has long supported a population of typically-underserved students, including first-generation, commuter, low socio-economic status, and racial minorities.

The Challenge: Similar to other institutions that serve large populations of underserved populations, PUC faced hurdles when encouraging students to enroll in the number of credits necessary to promote persistence and completion of a four-year college degree. We know that students struggle in attempts to balance off-campus work requirements and family commitments. These challenges, along with a lack of campus cultural competencies, are serious contributors to attrition. However, university administrators at Purdue Calumet recognized opportunities to teach students and their parent/supporters the potential for a higher return on their college investment by following established plans for graduation.

The Solution: Utilizing multiple Complete College America (CCA) “Game Changer” strategies, Purdue Calumet integrated behavioral-based interventions and institutional-level policies into plans for student retention and increased enrollment in credit hours. Below are the steps for the comprehensive institutional plan:

Step 1: In Spring 2013, consistent with the CCA Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) model and a legislative mandate from the Indiana Commission of Higher Education, Purdue Calumet created four-year degree maps (“whole programs of study”) for every academic major.

Step 2: The Game Changer strategy “Fifteen to Finish” was incorporated into a mandatory New Student Orientation that included student and parents/supporters. Clear, introductory messages were relayed via oral and written communication related to the importance of enrolling in 15 credit hours. For many of the first-generation students, they were surprised to learn that a summer semester was not punitive and could be used toward accumulating 30 credit hours per academic year. A component of the initiative that resonated was the potential return on investment for graduating on time – for example, by graduating in 4 years rather than 5, students could save thousands of dollars in tuition and fees, room and board, transportation and other expenses.

Step 3: During the registration portion of New Student Orientation, the PUC Fall 2013 incoming student cohort received the four-year degree plan for their intended major of study. A number of academic Colleges put students in block schedules of 15 credit hours. The “opt-out versus opt-in” strategy provided students flexibility in scheduling based on life and work demands; however, most students chose to stay enrolled in the 15 credit hour schedule.

Step 4: Through GPS “intrusive advising,” academic advisors reinforced the “Fifteen to Finish” messages. A comprehensive marketing campaign continued beyond New Student Orientation and throughout the academic year.

Fifteen to Finish is one of the multiple CCA strategies that have the potential to change the lives of college students and reshape the culture of student success on campuses. For administrators, faculty, and advisors at institutions that serve large populations of underrepresented students, “Fifteen to Finish” is a strategy that can be easily and quickly implemented. Most importantly, it establishes the bar for completion that can reap dividends that not only benefit students through better stewardship of existing funds, but increased credit accumulation that can stabilize college enrollments. As Vice President of CCA, I look forward to further elevating the national college completion agenda and utilizing my institutional-level experiences and knowledge of Game Changer strategies to assist States, systems, and institutions in practical implementation and scaling of existing and new initiatives.

posted by Dhanfu Elston


Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Helping the “New Majority” Graduate

Only 25% of today’s college students live at a residential campus and attend school full-time; the rest are engaged in delicate and exhausting balancing acts, often juggling courses, jobs and family obligations while commuting to campus. Their schedules are often chaotic, changing every semester and straining relationships with employers. As a result, 40% of all American college students can only manage part-time enrollment, lengthening their time in college and increasing the likelihood that they’ll accumulate debt without earning a degree.

All across the country, the numbers tell the same story: most part-time students will never graduate. Complete College America’s Game Changers are designed to ensure this new majority can succeed in spite of their busy lives, and our strategies can make a big difference for part-time students. structure copy 1The greatest help we can provide is to offer greater predictability, especially when we consider many students have to work to afford school. Structured schedules – for example, going to school every day from 8 a.m. to noon or from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. – provide the daily certainty that allows easier job scheduling and removes the need for semester-by-semester negotiations with employers and child care providers. With structured schedules, many more students could attend full-time, doubling their likelihood for success. The CUNY ASAP model and the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology are great examples of structured schedules for students in certificate or associate degree programs. (Check out our webinar on structured schedules this Wed at 2 pharmacy online pm EST.) In both Tennessee and New York, where programs have been designed to specifically meet the needs of local communities, these structural reforms have led to organic cohorts of students. These cohorts have strengthened collegial relationships among faculty, provided powerful opportunities for collaborations among students and their teachers, and created a shared mission of success that prioritizes timely completion and better outcomes for students and their communities.

15 to Finish initiatives are also helping colleges around the country ensure many more students are on-track for graduation. Thanks to this strategy at places like the University of Akron and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the majority of students are now taking the credits necessary to complete on time.

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While we see these successes at schools serving full-time students, we’re often asked if 15 to Finish can work for 2-year programs that primarily serve part-time students. The answer: absolutely. We recognize, however, that differing student populations require adapting how we approach these initiatives. For example, institutions serving large populations of part-time students should encourage accumulating 30 credits per year through year-round attendance with summer or winter terms.

Rather than accepting that part-time students do not always easily fit into the traditional systems and structures of a college education, we have to ask ourselves how we can change such structures and design initiatives to better support students in their path to completion. There may always be students who need to go part-time, but we need to find ways to lessen the number of those students who view it as their only option. The Game Changers provide the structure and predictability these students need to succeed.

posted by Julie Johnson


Thursday, October 2, 2014
It’s Time to Redefine “Full-Time” in College as 15 Credits

As the current and former commissioners for Indiana’s higher education system, we agree that on-time college graduation must become the standard rather than the exception it is today. Less than 1 in 10 full-time community college students complete an associate degree within two years and just 3 in 10 full-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree finish in four years.

If these students are attending college full-time and not part-time, why are so few graduating on time? One frustratingly simple reason is that many students just aren’t taking enough credits each semester. This is the unintended consequence of flawed federal policy combined with misconceptions about what’s in the best interest of students.

Since the federal government defines full-time enrollment as 12 credits per semester for financial aid purposes, students often mistake their “full-time” status with a guarantee for on-time graduation. In actuality, full-time students must take at least 15 credits per semester, or 30 credits per year, to earn their degrees on time. This disconnect costs students, families and taxpayers millions of dollars in extra tuition fees, loan debt and lost wages for each additional semester.

Equally troubling is the fact that students—especially low-income and first-generation college students—often are discouraged from taking more than 12 credits a semester. This well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive advice is based on the conventional wisdom that students who “ease in” to college by taking fewer credits have a greater chance for success. The data tell a different story.

A recent report by the Community College Research Center adds to the evidence of what we’ve found to be true in Indiana and at institutions across the country: students who take 15 or more credits per semester earn better grades, are more likely to stay enrolled in school, and most important of all, they are far more likely to graduate.

With the launch of a statewide “15 to Finish” campaign this year, Indiana has joined a national movement led by Complete College America that aims to increase college completion by redefining full-time as 15 credits. In response, our colleges have incorporated the “15 to Finish” message into their academic and financial aid advising practices and students are becoming empowered as advocates for their own success.

Though most have embraced the “15 to Finish” campaign and the student-centered policies that support it, some critics have questioned whether this message is right for all students. The fact is many more students can benefit from increasing their credit accumulation. Indiana’s “15 to Finish” campaign is squarely focused on the nearly 40 percent of full-time Hoosier college students who are missing the mark of on-time graduation by only a couple courses each year.

We remain committed to advancing policies and practices that help all students, including part-time and returning adults, reap the rewards of a college credential sooner. We have all been inspired by the stories of students who finally earned their degrees after years of struggle. At the same time, we can’t help but wonder: If given a choice, would these students have wanted it to take so long?

This column was co-written by Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers and Complete College America President Stan Jones. Learn more about Indiana’s 15 to Finish campaign at

It first appeared in The Statehouse File.

posted by CCA


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