Increasing academic momentum of students in their freshman year in college will help more students persist and graduate on-time and with less debt. This policy brief examines data of two strategies proven to increase academic momentum in the freshman year: taking 15 credit hours or more a semester and completing gateway math courses.

Kentucky is pleased to partner with Complete College America (CCA), a nonprofit organization working to encourage more states to implement a range of game changers aimed at completion. In a 2011 publication, CCA brought a national focus to the fact that time is the enemy to college completion. As time increases so does the cost, and both time and cost decrease the likelihood of graduation.

CPE research has found a strong positive association between attempted credit hours in the first year of college and the likelihood of graduation for full-time, bachelor’s degree-seeking students at Kentucky’s public four-year institutions. The student groups attempting 14 credit hours or less were less likely to graduate, which was consistent among freshmen beginning in the fall terms of 2008, 2009 and 2010 regardless of Kentucky institution or student characteristics, such as low income, minority or underprepared. The difference between the groups in completing college in six years was approximately 18 percentage points.

Comparing Kentucky graduation rates by first semester registered credit hours.

Another indication of academic momentum is completion of gateway math courses in the first year of college. The chart below shows improved completion rates between academic year (AY) 2015 and 2016 for students in research universities and KCTCS two-year colleges, both low-income and all entering students.

Percent of entering freshmen who complete gateway math courses in their first year.
Research universities: University of Louisville and University of Kentucky; comprehensive universities: Eastern Kentucky University, Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University.

Policy Implications

On-time graduation is a central policy issue in Kentucky. In 2014, the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) launched a collaborative project with Kentucky’s colleges and universities to raise the awareness of the benefits of on-time graduation. To this end, the statewide campaign, 15 to Finish, was used by Kentucky colleges and universities to emphasize student enrollment intensity. Campuses incorporated the messaging in many of their marketing efforts and also in college advising and freshmen orientations. Early results of statewide efforts show positive trends.

Other CCA on-time completion initiatives include;

  • Revising financial aid policies and redefining full-time attendance, which is currently set at 12.
  • Limiting the number of credits required for degrees. Kentucky limits them to 60 for most associate degrees and to 120 for most bachelor’s degrees;
  • Revising tuition policies to encourage students to take a full course load of 15 credit hours and above without incurring additional tuition;
  • Implementing corequisite education in place of developmental education, which requires additional coursework and adds time and costs; and
  • Utilizing summer semesters more effectively.

To find out more about best practices that reward credit accumulation, visit the CCA website here.

Kentucky has made important strides to improve the percentage of the working-age population (ages 18-64) with a high school diploma or GED® test credential. Over 15 years, the state has improved its numbers from 21.1 percent without a high school credential to 12.9 percent, making Kentucky’s gain the largest in the nation, at 8.2 percentage points.

In 2000, Kentucky’s gap compared to the national average spanned four percent. By 2015, this gap had closed to less than one percent, at 0.7 percent.

Figure 1: KY population in 2000 without a high school diploma or GED test credential.
Figure 1: KY population in 2000 without a high school diploma or GED test credential.
Figure 2: KY population in 2015 without a high school diploma or GED test credential.
Figure 2: KY population in 2015 without a high school diploma or GED test credential.

Along with the increasing number of working-age Kentuckians earning their high school equivalency credential, other factors, such as increased high graduation rates, contribute to this measure.

However, it is crucial that Kentucky continue to improve its number of working-age population with a high school credential; ACS data (2015) indicates that there are still nearly 354,000 individuals in this population lacking a high school credential. Significant improvement is needed in this area to meet Kentucky’s workforce demands, as more employers require at least some postsecondary education for jobs.

Kentucky Adult Education (KYAE) Skills U is committed to ensuring that Kentucky adults have the opportunity to earn a GED® test credential – and beyond. A high school or GED® graduate earns an average of $9,776 more per year than a non-graduate, and the earnings increase as educational attainment levels increase. Of additional concern is the fact that low-skilled adults are two times more likely to be unemployed, three times as likely to be in poverty, four times as likely to be in poor health and eight times as likely to be incarcerated. Through their services, KYAE Skills U programs help individuals enact transformational, generational changes that not only affect the individuals themselves, but their families, their communities and the commonwealth-at-large. More information about these services can be found here.