A new analysis examining the effects of Indiana’s 15 to Finish initiative finds the greater the financial incentive, the more likely students will take on a full-time course load -- and with little to no negative impact.
The report examines the effects of the Indiana Legislature’s 2013 decision to increase the number of courses students needed to complete each year in order to be eligible to renew their state financial aid award. Students are now required to take at least 30 credits a year -- or 15 a semester -- to maintain aid. The move was made in an effort to cut down on students’ time to graduation. Some experts say students assume taking 12 credits per semester is enough for them to earn a degree in two years for an associate degree or four years for a bachelor's degree.
The analysis from Postsecondary Analytics -- a research consulting firm -- found that the change in financial aid policy led to a 5.2 percent average growth rate in the likelihood of students earning 30 credits or more in a year. For students who received Indiana’s highest financial aid award, the average growth rate in the likelihood of earning 30 or more credits in a year increased 10.1 percent.
Despite concerns, the analysis also found that the policy change did not lead to a significant decline in completion rates, fall-to-spring retention rates, or in fall grade point average. There was a small decline, however, in 18- and 19-year-old recipients of Indiana’s smallest financial award.
“The financial aid policy is effective for increasing credit-hour completion,” said Takeshi Yanagiura, a doctoral student in economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who co-authored the report. “We find little evidence on potential negative side effects due to the policy.”
Besides GPA remaining the same, the analysis found that there was no difference between whether students were at a two-year or four-year institution, and students also did not switch their majors.
“These results confirm our own internal studies we’ve done following what happens with financial aid students since the legislation passed in 2013,” said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s commissioner of higher education. “Our financial aid complements our other attitude about how we finance education in Indiana. We have a philosophy of paying for what we value.”
Lubbers said institutions receive performance funding by getting more students to complete on time, so creating the incentive for students to increase the rate they finish means that the colleges they attend will receive more aid, as well.
More institutions and states are looking at decreasing the time students take to a degree as a way to boost overall completion numbers. A growing body of research has pointed out that full-time students are more likely to graduate -- although there are concerns about the unintended consequences that can come from policies that mandate or encourage full-time credit loads, for example on returning students or those with full-time jobs or family responsibilities.
Complete College America, which is based in Indiana, has advocated for 15 to Finish reforms across the country.
“CCA has long believed that time is the enemy of college completion,” said Sarah Ancel, vice president of strategy at CCA, who was also an associate commissioner at the state’s higher education department when the policy went into effect. “One thing that is really notable is the positive impact the policy has for underrepresented minorities. It’s a victory for completion, but also equity.”
The analysis found credit hours increased by 11.7 percent for ethnic minority students compared to 9.4 percent for nonminority students.
The analysis looked at two different financial aid awards offered in Indiana -- the state’s 21st Century Scholars program and the Frank O’Bannon Grants -- which make up the majority of the state’s aid programs. The 21st Century program is for low-income students who meet certain GPA and academic benchmarks. In 2014, the program awarded on average $7,900 to first-time students at four-year institutions and $3,630 to first-time students at two-year institutions. With the state’s financial aid policy change, students had to maintain 30 or more credits a year to continue to receive the annual scholarship.
The O’Bannon Grant is also need-based, however, the highest award amount for private university students is $7,400. For four-year students, it’s $3,700, and for two-year students, it’s $3,100. Under Indiana’s 15 to Finish policy, students also have to maintain 30 credits a year to receive the maximum award amount, but students who complete 24 credits or fewer could lose up to $300 if they received the maximum award.
“A lot is at stake for our 21st Century Scholars -- if they don’t complete the credit hours, they lose the scholarship and they would fall into another financial aid pool,” Lubbers said. “The students who have the most to lose felt the greatest sense of urgency to pick up extra credit hours.”
Despite the positive results, Yanagiura cautions that they are based on short-term outcomes and there is more about the policy that needs to be studied.
“The policy is still only a few years old, and long-term outcomes are not available yet and beyond the scope of this study,” he said, adding that those long-term outcomes include graduation, wage and student debt.