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.
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 presentationsthat 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:
“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
“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.