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.

A recently released report on college affordability from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) presents Kentucky as more affordable for low-income families than the national average; however, the report calls for a stronger partnership between states and the federal government to make college more accessible by allocating additional student grants.

SHEEO presents the college cost burden for low-income families based on net price[1] for first-time, full-time undergraduates at public two-year and four-year institutions. As Figure 1 shows, net price varies between sectors and among states. Kentucky’s net price at public four-year institutions is lower than the national average and for Ohio and Tennessee, but higher than West Virginia. At two-year institutions, Kentucky’s net price is the lowest among the comparative states and the nation.

Figure 1: Net price at four- and two-year institutions for families earning up to $48,000 in Kentucky and other states.

States vary greatly in the level of cost burden for students. Figure 2 presents net price as a percentage of the US lowest income families earning $30,000 at public two-year institutions for 50 states. The shares range from the highest of 51 percent in New Hampshire to the lowest of 15 percent in Mississippi, with the national average of 23. Kentucky’s low-income families pay approximately 19 percent of their annual earnings to cover out-of-pocket college costs.

Net price of two-year institutions as a percent of income for families earning $30,000.
Figure 2: Net price of two-year institutions as a percent of income for families earning $30,000.

A similar variation exists for families earning $30,000 enrolled at four-year public institutions, presented in Figure 3. Kentucky is below the national average, with 32 percent of family income dedicated to paying the net price of a college education (32 percent in Kentucky compared to 36 percent nationally). For low-income families, the average cost of a public four-year education in Kentucky after receiving financial aid accounts for 32 percent of their annual income.

Net price as a percent of income for families earning $30,000.
Figure 3: Net price of four-year institutions as a percent of income for families earning $30,000.

To meet the affordability thresholds for low-income students, SHEEO proposes that states should increase per-student educational appropriations and the federal government should match each state's effort dollar-for-dollar. To learn more about the SHEEO college affordability model, please review the report. To learn more about affordability in terms of student debt and repayment, view the Council's report.

[1] Net price is the actual costs to the student after financial aid has been awarded. A low income family with children is defined by yearly earnings up to $48,000.