Pushing for Graduation in Four

Texas A&M University at San Antonio pushes students to earn 15 credits a semester -- a task that may not be easy when many have responsibilities at home.

March 21, 2018
 
Students at Texas A&M at San Antonio

Full-time students are more likely to graduate than part-time ones, according to a growing body of research. And seemingly, the fuller a course load, the better: students who take 15 credits a semester are more likely to graduate than their classmates who take 12 -- since an average of 15 per semester ensures a degree in four years.

The idea has been pushed by various state and federal lawmakers in the past -- the Obama administration backed the "15 to Finish" campaign about two years ago. However, critics say the approach can fail to consider students with jobs and other responsibilities at home.

In keeping with the notion that momentum spurs graduation, Texas A&M University at San Antonio, which was originally a transfer-only institution enrolling junior- and senior-level students from community colleges, stepped up efforts to encourage students to take 15 credit hours per semester after it began enrolling freshmen in 2016. More than half -- 53.6 percent -- of its students are currently enrolled part-time.

Most students at the university are first generation (78 percent) and low income (81 percent qualify for financial aid), from underrepresented minority backgrounds (about 70 percent identify as Latino). Also, the majority are commuters -- the college opened its first residence hall in August -- meaning they may not use academic services as often as students at other universities who live on campus. Historically, students with these demographic characteristics tend not to graduate on time, and many don't get to graduation.

In 2016 the university started its "finish in four" graduation pledge. Kimberly Nañez, director of the student success office, said graduating in four years benefits students financially, in keeping costs down, as well as academically, in ensuring that their educations continue uninterrupted. The pledge program accepted 92 students in fall 2017, up from about 30 last spring.

"We are trying to increase engagement and persistence. If students are in 15 hours per semester, they are more likely to engage in on-campus activities and persist with us," Nañez said.

Students must take an average of 15 credits a semester (not including summer courses) to graduate in four years -- taking 12 will leave students 24 credits shy after four years. But for students with jobs and other responsibilities, full-time study may not be feasible.

The majority of students at Texas A&M San Antonio come from low-income, first-generation and minority backgrounds, and many work part-time. Luz Cano falls into this category. The 23-year-old education major, who takes 12 credits a semester, balances her study with raising two children and holding a job as an elementary school substitute teacher. While Cano manages her time carefully, fitting her classes into two days a week, she said she often works late into the night. 

"I would love to take 15 credits if I didn't work," Cano said via email. "I could just focus on school. Since that is not the case, I try to juggle work, school, homework, projects, my kids and life. Although I wish I could do more, taking 12 credits is within my capability and my comfort zone." 

Although San Antonio has a disproportionate number of students like Cano, who have significant responsibilities in addition to their studies, the college is pushing students to graduate on time. Those in the "finish in four" program are assigned an adviser to offer guidance on which classes they should take to stay on track toward their goals, as well as help minimize the costs of tuition and debt. To qualify, students must be in the first semester of their freshman year and be taking 15 credits.

The program is considered to be a "deal" between teacher and student. To continue in the program, students must complete an average of 15 credits a semester, maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average, refrain from taking leave and notify the university when a required course isn't available. In return, the university pledges to offer students all required courses necessary to graduate, provide an academic adviser to regularly assist in class scheduling and give financial aid by the census date.

“We know the prerequisites, the best classes to take -- but they may not know,” Nañez said. "It's not always possible for students to take 15 credits, but it's definitely preferable."

To assess the results of efforts to encourage on-time graduation, the university compared how many credits freshmen in the 2016 and 2017 cohorts took. Of students in the 2016 cohort (not just those in the program), 78 took 15 credit hours or more, and 479 took 12 hours or more. In 2017, 124 students took 15 credit hours or more, while 547 enrolled in 12 hours or more. In addition, students who took 15 or more hours in their first semester achieved a slightly higher grade point average than their counterparts who took 12 to 14 hours. In terms of retention rates, 86.5 percent of students who started in fall 2016 continued to the spring semester, while 68.2 percent enrolled in a second year.

The college has extended its services to family members of students, to help relatives who may not have pursued higher education understand its demands. An initiative named after the college mascot, the Jaguar family program, includes orientations, a newsletter and volunteer opportunities to include and inform parents.

The “family first” program, a free, nine-week, hourlong seminar, teaches parents of first-generation students about how the university works and how best to support their children. “Many of our students have full-time jobs, huge responsibilities. They have competing responsibilities at home,” Ashley Spicer-Runnels, assistant vice president for student success, said. "We have tried to put mechanisms in place to help them be more resilient."

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