Attewell, P., and D. Monaghan. 2016. “How Many Credit Hours Should an Undergraduate Take?” Research in Higher Education, 57, 682–713.
Paul Attewell and David Monaghan attend to an important public and institutional policy question pertinent to low college completion rates and the increased time to earn a degree. What mechanisms exist to boost college completion rates and reduce the time to earn a degree? Attewell and Monaghan point to increasing the number of credit hours taken in the first semester of college from 12 to 15 credit hours as one such mechanism.
The notion of increasing the number of credit hours taken in the first semester of college from 12 to 15 hours stems from Adelman’s academic momentum concept (Adelman 1999, 2004, 2006). The concept emphasizes the timely accumulation of credits during the first year of college.
Attewell and Monaghan empirically test the academic momentum concept by determining whether students who take 15 hours during their first semester are more likely to graduate within six years of their initial enrollment than are students who take 12 credit hours during their first semester of college.
DISCUSSION OF THE FINDINGS
Attewell and Monaghan used the statistical procedure of propensity score matching (PSM) to approximate a randomized control group design of randomly assigning subjects to treatment and to control groups (Rosenbaum 2002). In this study, students taking 12 credit hours rather than 15 credit hours during the first semester of college formed the treatment group. PSM creates treatment and control groups with similar characteristics based on their likelihood of taking either 12 or 15 credit hours. Put differently, PSM accounts for student selection bias toward taking 12 as contrasted with taking 15 credit hours.
The Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS) was the data source for this study. The BPS is a longitudinal study that includes a nationally representative sample of first-year students who entered college during the 2003–2004 academic year and were surveyed in 2009. This timeline permits measuring college graduation within six years of enrollment. Attewell and Monaghan constructed an analytical sample of 6,730 students.
The multivariate models tested by Attewell and Monaghan indicate that students taking 12 credit hours during the first semester in contrast with those students taking 15 credit hours are less likely to earn their degrees within six years of their initial enrollment. Stated differently, taking 15 credit hours rather than 12 credit hours boosts a student’s chance of completing college within six years.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ACTION BY CAMPUS LEADERS
CIC colleges and universities concerned with their four-year and six-year graduation rates should consider establishing a 15 credit hours per semester policy, especially during the first semester, as the minimum course load. Degree requirements of CIC member institutions should stipulate that a minimum 15 credit hour course load is expected each semester until graduation. Those students wishing to take 12 credit hours would need to request a waiver of this requirement with a cogent rationale.
Chief academic officers at CIC institutions would need to embrace a 15 credit hour policy and steer it through appropriate faculty governance bodies and standing committees to assure faculty acceptance of this policy.
LITERATURE READERS MAY WISH TO CONSULT
There are two categories of literature that readers may wish to consult to further their understanding of course credit hour policies. One category includes the reference cited in this article review and the other category includes a reference that provides readers with an understanding of the effects of credit hour course loads on students.
REFERENCES CITED IN THIS REVIEW
Adelman, C. 1999. Answers to the Tool Box. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Adelman, C. 2004. Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972–2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Adelman, C. 2006. The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Rosenbaum, P.R. 2002. Observational Studies. New York, NY: Springer.
REFERENCE FOR UNDERSTANDING
Complete College America. 2013. The Power of 15 Credits: Enrollment Intensity and Postsecondary Student Achievement. Washington, DC: Complete College America.