As the needs and demands of the average college student change, so too is what is perceived as a full-time course load in the realm of higher education.

Complete College America, a national non-profit organization that works to significantly increase the number of Americans with a college degree, released a report on Dec. 4 that shows taking 12 credit hours per semester no longer can guarantee college completion in four years.

“The federal standard is 12 credits (per semester) and for most colleges, that’s 'full time',” said Blake Johnson, associate director of communications at Complete College America. “What students need to realize is that meeting that 12-hour mark does not mean you'll graduate on time, though.

"The sure fire way to ensure on time completion is to take 15 credits each semester or 30 each year."

With national on-time completion rates for four-year degrees at 19 percent, and 26.2 percent in Illinois, SIU is the only Illinois college on Complete College America’s list to offer a 15 to Finish initiative. The university has incorporated this strategy into its online registration portals, highlighting the importance of 15 credit hours per semester.

“The cost of college is high, and students often times have to work to help pay their tuition,” said SIU chancellor Rita Cheng. “But we are promoting 15 to Finish because we’re finding students are getting better grades with 15 credit hours, are more focused and using their time more effectively.”

Fifteen states on Complete College America’s list have colleges with 15 to Finish campaigns, with Indiana and Missouri as the only other ones in the Midwest. The University of Central Missouri offers a scholarship in which a first-time, full-time freshman can earn $1,000 — $500 per semester — to be used toward their final year of undergraduate studies.

In Texas, the B-on-Time student program is a zero-interest loan to Texas residents attending in-state colleges. It offers complete loan forgiveness to students who complete a bachelor’s degree in four years with at least a B average.

“Typically, the students I advise are taking 15 hours,” said Jean Kelley, chief academic advisor for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at SIU. “However, for a freshman coming in, 15 hours is a little overwhelming as they have to adjust from high school to college.

“Generally, 15 hours is a doable course load for most students.”

Complete College of America is also pushing for universities to offer “banded tuition,” which would allow students to take 15 credit hours for the price of 12. It has identified enrollment intensity and on-time completion as being two of the best ways to make college education more affordable.

“It’s a lot less expensive to go to college if you get your degree in four years, opposed to the debt you acquire if it’s five or six,” Johnson said.

Work, family obligations and restrictions on federal financial aid all play a part in some students not being able to take 15 credit hours. Complete College of America’s report found evidence that students regularly, and often unknowingly, choose credit loads that put them on a five or six-year track.

“For a business student, 15 is the norm,” said Tabitha Stone, chief academic advisor for the College of Business. “It gives students the possibility of dropping a course, if needed, and still remain full time.

“It also opens up their summers to do internships, studying abroad and other things that add value to their college experience that they would not be able to do if they had to make up courses.”

Course difficulty also has an impact on on-time completion. Kimberly Little, chief academic advisor for the College of Education and Human Services, said SIU’s advisors work to develop an academic plan for students so that they won’t face the toughest classes in the same semester.

“Our academic advisors are amazing and we talk to students about their strengths,” Little said. “We want to make sure we look at the whole academic career of a student rather than semester-by-semester.”

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