December 4, 2013

Latest Numbers Show On-Time Graduation is a Myth for Most College Students

Complete College America Calls for States to Recognize “Full-Time” Should Mean Students Take 15 Credits Per Semester, 30 Per Year

INDIANAPOLIS - With national on-time completion rates sitting at 19% for those seeking four-year degrees (non-flagship) and 4% for those seeking two-year degrees, Complete College America is calling on state higher education and university leaders to recognize that “full-time” should mean students take 15 credits per semester or 30 credits per year, and, with few exceptions, degree requirements should be limited to 120 credits for bachelor’s degrees and 60 credits for associate degrees.

According to a recent report, How Full-Time are "Full-Time" Students, commissioned by Complete College America and conducted by Nate Johnson of Postsecondary Analytics, most “full-time” students throughout the country fail to take enough credits to ensure on-time completion of their degrees. The study, which surveyed 329 public two- and four-year institutions in 30 states, found that despite evidence that graduation rates are tied to enrollment intensity, students regularly and often unknowingly opt for credit loads that put them on five and six year plans. The report advises that states and institutions must understand and change an institutional culture in which the 12-credit hour schedule has become the norm.

State-by-state on-time completion rates can be found here.

Last April, Complete College America encouraged states to replicate Hawaii’s 15 to Finish campaign, an effort that significantly raises awareness about the advantages of truly full-time enrollment. The University of Hawaii system has seen notable increases in the number of students taking at least 15 credits per semester and touts that retention rates are 22% higher for incoming freshmen who fall into this group.

Complete College America is also urging leaders to consider establishing banded tuition, a measure that would ensure taking 15 credits per semester costs no more than the current 12-credit standard. These concepts are part of Complete College America's Full-Time is 15, one of the five Game Changer strategies leading to two, three, and four times the results throughout the country. (Learn more about Full-Time is 15 in our recent report, The Game Changers).

“When students start with just 12 credit hours per semester, they are already on the five year plan,” said Complete College America President Stan Jones. “We have to take steps that incent students to take at least 15 credits per semester and get the word out that on-time graduation is much more likely when students take ‘15 to Finish.’”

Jones went on to say that enrollment intensity and on-time completion are the best ways to make college more affordable. He stated, “Earning a four-year degree in four years is a lot cheaper than earning one in five or six. States and colleges that are serious about making higher education more affordable must make on-time graduation a top priority.”

Jones also offered that while not all students would be able to take 15 credits per semester due to work and family obligations, the goal should be to increase enrollment intensity as much as possible, and institutions should utilize other strategies such as structured schedules and whole programs of study to make full-time enrollment possible for many more students.

A growing number of states and institutions have already answered Complete College America’s call to action, and many more are in the process of evaluating their options both at the campus and state level. Current state actions can be found below:

Fifteen States Launch 15 to Finish Campaigns


Metropolitan State University of Denver has launched a variation of ‘15 to Finish,’ entitled ‘Graduate in 4.’ Students are introduced to the concept at new student orientation and are given the opportunity to sign a banner committing to on-time completion. ‘Graduate in 4’ is part of a comprehensive communication plan that utilizes advertisements in the student newspaper and on social media. The message is also reinforced through financial aid publications and presentations that highlight the costs of not completing on time. View Metropolitan State University’s ‘Graduate in 4.’


The University System of Georgia, in conjunction with Georgia Perimeter College, is developing regional workshops and state-wide conferences devoted to ‘15 to Finish’ strategies. The University System of Georgia is currently encouraging all system institutions to institutionalize 15 credits per semester as the new norm for “full-time” enrollment, and four USG institutions have already implemented banded tuition models. Institutions have begun publicizing the financial benefits of taking 15 credits a semester to ensure on-time completion.


The University of Hawaii system developed ‘15-to-Finish’ and has served as an example for other states to replicate. In addition to their video advertisements, which encourage students to take at least 15 credits per semester, the state has also implemented banded tuition across the 4-year colleges and universities. Learn more about Hawaii’s work at


Southern Illinois University at Carbondale has implemented ‘15 to Finish’ strategies into their online registration portals, highlighting the importance of 15 credits and on-time completion.


Through the state’s GRAD Indiana campaign and Learn More Indiana’s ‘Finish College Faster’ initiative, Indiana and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education highlight ‘15 to Finish’ strategies and encourage students to increase enrollment intensity.


Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education will launch a statewide ‘15 to Finish’ communications and marketing campaign in January 2014. The effort is designed to encourage students to complete 15 credit hours per semester or 30 credits per year. The Council also affirms the need to change the “longstanding perception that taking 12 credit hours a semester is enough to graduate on time.” Learn more about Kentucky’s work here.


The University of Central Missouri now offers a ‘15 to Finish’ scholarship. First-time, full-time freshmen can earn a scholarship worth $1,000 to be awarded in the final year of undergraduate studies, split $500 each semester.

Both Harris Stowe University and Truman University have implemented banded tuition, offering flat rates between 12-16 credit hours per semester and 12-17 credit hours per semester respectively.


The Montana University System employs a ‘flat spot’ in tuition rates across all universities, whereby students pay the same tuition rate when in enrolling in 12 to 18 credit hours.

A number of campuses have also launched ‘15 to Finish’ efforts. You can see Montana State University’s efforts here.


The Nevada Board of Regents has adopted a ‘15 to Finish’ campaign which will launch in fall 2014. The campaign includes a statewide media strategy and changes to orientation programs that will encourage students to take a full course load of 15 credits per semester. You can see coverage of Nevada’s campaign here.


Oklahoma students are informed that they must average 15 credits per semester to graduate. Oklahoma University now offers a flat tuition rate that allows students to affordably take a full course load of 15 credits per semester and Northeastern State University has initiated a ‘Finish in 4’ program that promotes graduation in four years through proper planning and intrusive advising.


Portland State University has launched a new 4-year bachelor’s degree guarantee in which students agree to take 15 credits per term (45 credits per year), uphold good academic standing, and take required courses for their major. The university guarantees on-time completion, or the student will not be charged for any tuition while taking remaining required courses. Learn more about the program here.

South Dakota

Last year, the South Dakota Board of Regents changed its credit-hour graduation policies to the 120-credit standard for bachelor’s degrees and 60 credits for associate degrees. Those requirements were formerly at a 128/64 standard. The state has also deployed the merit-based South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship. The program requires that students must complete at least 30 credit hours of instruction each academic year in order to maintain eligibility, providing a financial incentive for taking ’15 to Finish.’


The University of Tennessee Chattanooga and University of Tennessee Knoxville have both launched ’15 to Finish’ campaigns to inform students of the steps necessary for on-time completion.


This year, Texas adopted a 60-hour cap on associate degrees to complement a previously adopted 120-hour cap on bachelor’s degrees. In addition, Texas offers the B-on-Time student program that offers complete loan forgiveness to students who complete a bachelor’s degree in 4 years with at least a B average.


In July, the Utah Board of Regents passed a resolution that addressed 5 completion initiatives, including redefining full-time as 15 credits per semester and strongly encouraging institutions to ensure that requirements for top scholarships utilize that definition. The resolution also recommends that each institution sets plateau (banded) tuition so that 15 credits cost the same as 12. For more information, visit 15 to Finish Utah.