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In our opinion: Encouraging a full college class load is a good idea

Published: Saturday, Nov. 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah commissioner of higher education is pushing a plan to encourage students to take 15 credit hours a semester, among other things.

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A campaign to encourage Utah college students to graduate in greater numbers and at a faster pace is an innovative and well-designed policy initiative that is much needed at a time when the barriers to completing a college degree are daunting to a large number of prospective graduates.

The latest component of the package unveiled by the state’s higher education commission will encourage students to take at least 15 credit hours per semester to ensure they graduate with an associate’s degree in two years, or a bachelor’s degree in four. Like the other elements of the campaign, it is elegant in its simplicity and important in what it seeks to achieve.

The only improvement would be a mechanism to assure the state’s eight public institutions of higher learning actively embrace the campaign. As it stands, the state board of regents has approved the initiatives as recommendations, but education leaders say all college presidents have given them positive reviews, which is encouraging.

The “15 to Finish” campaign will involve a series of advertisements and other messaging to push students to take a full course load every semester, which data shows would result in more kids getting degrees. Students who take more classes spend less money than those who approach school in a part-time fashion, and they are more likely to eventually graduate. They then move into the workforce more quickly, begin earning money earlier in life and make room for new undergraduates. All of that is ultimately good for students, the labor force and the overall economy.

There are certainly good reasons why many students choose not to maximize their course load at any given time. Tuition isn’t cheap, and many students pay at least part of their way by holding down jobs, leaving less time for study and classroom attendance. Another initiative approved by the Regents is the encouragement of “plateau tuition” structures to set costs per a range of credit hours, as opposed to a dollar value per credit hour. Specifically, the campaign promotes a flat cost for 12-15 hours of credit, which provides an incentive for a student who would otherwise enroll at a 12-hour level to add three hours worth of credit and maximize the value of his or her tuition check.

The package also includes the recommendation that institutions work to create a “graduation map” for entering students to help them navigate more efficiently through the academic requirements. And the Regents have encouraged campuses to grant an associate’s degree to a student after he or she has accumulated enough hours of study. That comes from data showing students who attain that level of achievement are much more likely to continue on to a four-year degree. And if they don’t, they still have a two-year degree in their pocket when they leave the campus.

Each of the recommendations makes sense and would achieve measurable results. In aggregate, they could have an impact on graduation rates and the quality of an individual student’s college experience. The regents chose to frame them as suggestions, which allows the leaders of individual institutions to regard their implementation as optional. They shouldn’t. The ideas are sound and institutional leaders should give serious consideration to putting them to use.

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