ST. LOUIS • In an attempt to address college affordability, Missouri rolled out a new initiative Wednesday morning, flanked with the Legislature’s support.
The “15 to Finish” initiative encourages college students to take 15 credit hours each semester, increasing their odds of graduating on time and leaving college with less debt.
The Missouri Department of Higher Education is tag teaming with the national nonprofit group Complete College America to provide Missouri’s two- and four-year colleges with promotional materials and ideas to personalize the initiative for each campus.
The effort is to break through the idea that because 12 credit hours per semester is considered full-time to receive federal financial aid, that that’s enough. This is especially important in an era where the average college student changes majors multiple times.
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Complete College America estimates that fewer than one-third of students in Missouri public schools are taking 15 credit hours each semester. Students need to take at least 15 credit hours to be considered “on time” to graduate.
The same research found that almost 60 percent of students are taking 12 hours a semester. Both numbers are much higher at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the state’s flagship campus.
Graduation rates are factored into a school’s success in Missouri’s performance-based funding system. Two-year schools are judged on a four-year graduation rate and four-year schools by a six-year rate.
Zora Mulligan, Missouri commissioner of higher education, said the challenge with the new initiative was “convincing people that it can be done.”
Some schools will argue that their students face too many responsibilities outside of the classroom, such as work and families, and therefore these students need to have reasonable schedules.
Mulligan said the new initiative could force colleges to think critically about what requirements for a degree might not be necessary and fix or eliminate those.
The challenge of students with many outside responsibilities is exactly the concern at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“We are very well aware that our students take a longer time to complete their degrees,” said Alan Byrd Jr., dean of enrollment services at UMSL.
Before this initiative, the campus started making strides toward pushing its more traditional students with merit scholarships to take 15 credit hours. The four-year graduation rate is at the highest in UMSL’s history.
He said the push came with case-by-case advising efforts, which leaders will probably continue to do alongside the “15 to Finish” initiative.
“Lots of our students are holding full-time jobs, making it more difficult to have students managing a workload of 40 to 50 hours per week and classes,” Byrd said. “But we’ve done this already. We’ll just work case-by-case, look at their work schedule and class schedule. In many cases, our students find they can pick up an online class to get them those extra three credit hours.”