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Only 7 percent of college students who complete fewer than 11 credits annually graduate, and a new report from Ad Astra argues it’s important to encourage students to take on a larger credit load, given the odds.

Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Only 7 percent of students who earn fewer than 11 credits each year will complete their degree, according to new research from Ad Astra.


The report draws on 1.3 million students, enrolled both part- and full-time at two-year public, four-year public and four-year private institutions. Researchers tracked students’ academic career progress for up to 10 years, going beyond the traditional four- and six-year attainment benchmarks.

The group’s “2024 Benchmark Report,” released today, identifies ways that extended time to degree can stall completion for students and how institutional policies can help students earn a credential. The report encourages higher ed leaders to look beyond part-time and full-time classifications and instead evaluate how a greater number of credits taken each term can improve retention and completion for underrepresented groups.

A look at credit bands: In its data, Ad Astra found students are best represented in five groups based on their annual credit attainment as opposed to the traditional part-time versus full-time classification.

  • Walking: enrolled in between one and 11 credits annually
  • Speed walking: enrolled in between 12 and 17 credits annually
  • Jogging: enrolled in between 18 and 23 credits annually
  • Running: enrolled in between 24 and 29 credits annually
  • Sprinting: enrolled in 30-plus credits annually

While traditional progress bands just differentiate between fewer than 12 credits and more than 12 credits, within the part-time category, students had dramatically different retention and graduation rates.

For example, a student who is enrolled in 18 to 23 credits per year (“jogging”) is seven times more likely to graduate compared to a student only taking one to 11 credits each year (“walking”).

Across enrollment status, BILPOC (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, people of color) students have lower completion and retention rates, as well.

Taking the next steps: With these data in mind, colleges and universities should focus less on moving students from part- to full-time status to boost completion and more on small increases in course enrollment, because even one additional course can raise a student’s likelihood of completion.

Targeted advising: Some students who are resource-strapped cannot add courses to their workload, but they should be advised on the barriers to completion.

“How many students would enroll if they knew they only had a 7% chance of success?” the report asks. “The more nuanced analysis of student progress presented above highlights a scary reality: if a student doesn’t complete 12 credits or more a year, it’s very unlikely they’ll graduate.”

The report encourages targeted advising for students who could benefit from one more course each semester for timely degree progression.

Flexible scheduling: Today’s students often face competing priorities, including work and caregiving responsibilities. Colleges and universities should help students manage their busy schedules by creating predictable, student-aligned course schedules.

Ad Astra found almost half (41 to 45 percent) of the courses an institution offers are underutilized, with only 33 percent of courses balanced with student demand. Intentional course scheduling can also boost an institution’s bottom line.

Shorter academic terms: For students who cannot add more courses in the same academic term, a shorter term would give them the opportunity to complete a higher number of credits without juggling another responsibility. Often, colleges see DFW rates improve, leading to better progress as well.

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