The Obama administration recently joined a campaign to encourage students to take at least 15 credits per semester, following several statewide higher education systems and a growing number of individual public colleges.
The idea behind the “15 to Finish” push is that students who take on course loads of that size or larger have more academic success and, not surprisingly, are more likely to earn a degree on time.
Many students assume that taking 12 credits per semester is enough for them to earn an associate degree in two years, or a bachelor’s degree in four years, said Dhanfu Elston, vice president for Complete College America, a nonprofit advocacy group that has played a prominent role in the campaign. That assumption is wrong, however, unless students take courses during the summer. For example, a 12-credit course load works out to 48 credits after two years -- well short of a 60-credit associate degree. And some degree programs require more than 30 credits per year.
Low-income students who receive federal Pell Grants often cannot use that aid money for summer courses. And many grant recipients get the same amount of Pell money for 24 credits a year as they would for 30 credits.
The White House wants to change that, however. Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Education proposed the restoration  of the so-called year-round Pell, which would allow students to use the grants to help pay for summer courses. The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress eliminated that eligibility four years ago.
At the same time, the department proposed an annual bonus of $300 for Pell recipients who take at least 15 credits. Both that new idea, dubbed the “on-track Pell bonus,” and the year-round Pell proposal would require congressional action to become reality.
The department said the bonus would help students graduate on time.
“Finishing faster means more students will complete their education at a lower cost and likely with less student debt,” the department said in a written statement. “This proposal would help an estimated 2.3 million students next year as they work to finish their degrees faster.”
Advocates for community colleges and lower-income students mostly welcomed the bonus concept, describing it as well-intentioned. But the proposal also made some within higher education nervous.
For one thing, many students work while attending college and don’t have time to take 15 credits per semester. And students who are less prepared academically might falter if encouraged to stretch themselves too thin, some experts have argued. Or students might add courses that don't count toward their majors to try to get to 15 credits.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, published an essay  arguing that the bonus poses a risk to lower-income students.
“Research clearly indicates that giving them more grant aid will help them complete degrees at higher rates. The money is necessary,” she wrote. “But what will happen if it comes at an additional price associated with being pushed to take more credits than they otherwise would have? Is this positive motivation, or a punitive approach driven by political requirements to ration financial aid?”
Little new federal money is flowing into higher education these days. And year-round Pell is the top priority for community colleges, said Karen Stout, the new president and CEO of Achieving the Dream and former president of Montgomery County Community College, in Pennsylvania.
“They might not all get funded,” she said of the Obama administration’s Pell plans.
Even more ominous, said Stout and others, is the prospect that Congress would at some point try to make a 15-credit course load some form of minimum requirement for Pell Grants or other types of federal aid. To be defined as a full-time student (and to receive the maximum annual award of $5,775) under Pell, recipients currently must take at least 12 credits per semester.
There is no serious push to change that definition. Complete College America isn’t calling for it. Yet a budget-slashing Congress could seize on the idea. So could state lawmakers who are looking to change the eligibility requirements for state aid grants.
“I just worry,” said Stout, adding that such a change is “more of a danger at the state level.”
The department said its proposal would not harm Pell recipients.
“We need to be clear that this is a bonus, so it does not change the Pell Grant value for any student who is taking 12 units or nine units. What this does is that it provides a $300 bonus to students who choose to take 15 units or more,” Ted Mitchell, the department's under secretary, said in a phone call with reporters.
Five statewide higher education systems and colleges in more than 15 other states have begun 15-to-Finish campaigns, according to Complete College America . Those efforts typically feature web advertisements and other forms of marketing to raise students’ awareness about the benefits of taking more credits. None of the campaigns include requirements for students to take more credits. State aid requirements aren’t on the table, either.
The goal, said Elston, is “sending signals to students about what it’s going to take to get to on-time graduation.”
Some of the informational campaigns, which first began at the University of Hawaii system, have shown impressive results.
For example, Elston previously worked at Purdue University’s Calumet campus, where one-third of students receive Pell Grants. In 2012 just 27 percent of first-time, full-time students at the university took at least 15 credits during their first semester. Two years later, after the university started its outreach for 15 to Finish, 66 percent of incoming students had course loads of at least 15 credits.
Stout said Montgomery County Community College also has worked to change student perceptions about course loads.
“We were trying to get to 15 credits as the default,” she said.
The department’s bonus proposal is an intriguing idea, Stout said, adding that it probably would fit into an ideally structured version of the Pell Grant program. However, she said data are thin about whether such an approach would work.
“There’s this big assumption that 15 credits will lead to better completion,” she said, but “we just don’t know.”
Some experts, however, said there is solid research showing that 15-credit course loads can improve completion rates.
Tod Massa, policy research and data warehousing director for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, wrote about 15 to Finish on the council’s blog . He used data from the state to show that 74 percent of students who take at least 15 credits at Virginia’s public, four-year institutions will complete a degree within six years. That percentage falls to 63 percent for students who take 12 to 14.5 credits.
However, Massa cautioned that policies to encourage 15-credit course loads must be thoughtfully constructed to prevent unintended consequences.
“For some students, credit load is a function of overall affordability, particularly of their flexible or indirect costs such as textbooks and commuting costs,” he wrote. “Also, not every class is three credits, and sometimes schedules stack in such a way that a student's choice is not between 12 and 15, but between 14 and 17.”
Student who work while in college also may be better off with a more balanced schedule, Massa said.
The National Study on Collegiate Financial Wellness has numbers to back up that assertion, having found that the work-college balance is a serious challenge for many students. Ohio State University runs the large survey  in collaboration with several other institutions that represent a broad swath of higher education.
Among community college students who responded, fully one-third said the primary reason they were taking extra time to complete their degrees was because they had to take fewer classes in order to work more. Sixteen percent of students at public, four-year universities gave that answer, as did 18.2 percent of students overall.
Many students are working long hours, too. About 40 percent of community college students said they work more than 36 hours a week, the survey found. And almost half (47.2) of all respondents -- meaning across all types of colleges -- said they were working more than 20 hours a week.
For many of these students, taking 15 credits might help them get to graduation on time. But taking five courses while working long hours at a job is a tall order.