15 to Finish More Complicated Than it Sounds

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Did you know that only one third of four-year public students who earn a bachelor’s degree do so in four years? Another 25 percent complete in the fifth year, and a whopping 36 percent completing in six or more years[1]. Think about that for a moment. Truly the cost, in terms of fiscal and opportunity, is enormous for the two-thirds of our BA recipients who fail to complete on time. Add to this the time and money spent by the 51 percent of postsecondary students who never complete a degree at all, and we have a serious issue.

Last week, higher education institutions from West Virginia signed on to the Momentum Pathways Project[2] to encourage student success in higher education. The project utilizes a strategy known as “15 to Finish,” which encourages students to take 15 credit hours each semester in order to finish on time. The initiative also focuses on advisor training and degree maps.

All these things are good.

But all bring their requisite complexities that are not as simple as signing a memorandum of understanding. As in all things, if these issues were so simple, we would have fixed them already.


The complexity begins with the reality that we admit young adults to higher education who are neither academically nor socially prepared for the long endeavor of a four-year degree program. To be truthful, many are also unprepared for the two-year endeavor. Thus, colleges—and students—begin with significant deficits along the educational pathway. A sure sign of this challenge is that one-third of beginning postsecondary students take at least one developmental course when they enter higher education. At two-year public institutions, that percentage is 51 percent.[3] The percentages are lower for full-time students, but still reach 32 percent for two-year students and 15 percent for four-year students.

The 15 to Finish concept reaches its first hurdle at admissions, which is complicated by the fact that institutions do not have enough competent advisors on campus. The road to-and-through higher education is littered by barely or completely incompetent advising in high school and higher education. I only have to reach back as far as my three children’s higher education experience or even farther to my own undergraduate experience to understand how challenging it can be to trust a pathway formed by someone else who is too often completely ignorant of a student’s situation and the particular barriers at any given institution at any given place in time.

Without proper training and the use of professional advisors, students are left with the advice from people who are too often deficient in the knowledge of course requirements and the challenges thrown in the student pathway by courses that are only offered occasionally. Raise your hand—how many readers know a student who has had to take an extra semester in college because the one or two courses they needed were not available when they needed them? My hand is up for me and all three of my sons. We all had to extend our programs due to availability in courses.

The use of degree maps is incredibly important. Advisors must help students visualize their multi-year program at the outset. As well, they must plan for contingencies that may happen along the way. Drops and withdrawals; Ds or Fs; social and family issues. Across a four-year program, all students run into certain situations that wreak havoc on their grand educational and career plans. It happens. Thus, advisors must concern themselves with what could happen, not just what they hope will happen.

Similarly, students must possess the intellectual strength to understand this pathway at the outset and understand that navigational challenges along the way will only complicate matters later. Thus, it is better to knuckle down that deal with these consequences. Students need to understand this.

In reality, this is difficult to do, of course, especially for 18-19-year olds. Unfortunately, these students do not get “smarter” until a little more maturity sets in. All of this is made so difficult in today’s colleges and universities. If you haven’t done so lately, go on to any college website, especially a four-year program, and attempt to navigate which courses one needs to take for a bachelor’s degree. You pick. I consider myself fairly astute and certainly well informed on higher education; arguably much higher than average, given my vocation. Still, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure all the variable pieces when I had to do this with my kids. It gets mindnumbingly complicated once you get by the general course work that students are required to take. As an example, I remember sitting in the advisor’s office at George Mason University with my freshman son during his orientation for Engineering school. The advisor quickly pulled out a piece of paper and crossed out and circled different boxes on the page: “Don’t take this one. A waste of your time. You have to take this one, though.” In the end, he was a good advisor, but we would have never known that Course X was not necessary and a “waste of time” from the page he handed us. The problems came when certain courses weren’t available in the third and fourth year of the program. My son finished in 4.5 years. Not bad, but for me, it was another seven months of living costs in the very expensive Northern Virginia area. For him, more college life at an opportunity cost in the real world.

This leads to the next barrier. Colleges make the 15 to Finish issue much more challenging in the designation of General Education courses. Always constructed with the idea that this will make a more well-rounded student, Gen Ed courses often simply get in the way of students attaining a degree by demanding they take course or courses that they (a) have no interest in; (b) have no bearing on their career interests; (c) that they are deathly afraid of and do not want to take; or (d) have mastered that content previously. There are some answers to each of these areas in institutional policies, such as testing out, but not enough. I still argue vehemently why an institution should require a student who is not in the mathematics sciences in any remote manner to take a mathematics course as a general ed course when they labored through 6-10 math courses in high school. Why? It makes zero sense beyond academic snobbery and perhaps the protection of certain sections in the course catalogue. We call that professorial welfare.

In the same vein, colleges must rethink the gatekeeper courses, some of which are Gen Ed courses; others are more in line with a major study area. But if one particular course is keeping a student from completing a degree, it should be argued whether that course is necessary for completion. Certainly, many a time it is. But often it is not, fulfilling its role as a gatekeeper.

One more consideration is to question why we are stuck on the 120 credit, four-year program. Give me a pen and I can jettison one quarter of the courses students are required to complete for graduation pretty quickly. Am I write? Perhaps not, but enough very smart people, like GWU’s Steve Trachtenberg, have argued this for years.

In the end, completion of a college degree requires incredible navigation by the student, by the college, and by the parents. The process is made painfully difficult and causes thousands of students to finish in the fifth or sixth year.

The 15 to Finish is a novel look at the problem of completing outside the 100 percent window. The challenge remains in how we perceive solutions to these problems. If West Virginia and other states really want to tackle the issue, they will need to be much more aggressive than the Momentum Pathways Project.


[1] https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/SignatureReport11.pdf

[2] Other than the one news item from West Virginia, I could find no additional public information on this Project on my search, March 5, 2018.

[3] https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/opepd/education-strategies.pdf.

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