Drawbacks of "15 to Finish"

09/05/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, funded by The Lumina Foundation, reveals that over the past two decades, more than 31 million students have enrolled in college without obtaining a degree or certificate.

In our discussions about increasing college attainment in the United States, there is a movement in higher education to get students to commit to taking at least 15 credits a semester. Indiana became one of the latest states to launch a "15 to Finish" campaign.

While I applaud any effort designed to help students get a degree, I know from experience that "15 to Finish" will not work with non-traditional students attending community colleges. In fact it might hurt many students. Students, who are 25 or older, often have families and need to work full-time while attending college. According to the study, over half (56.3 percent) of these college students attend two-year institutions. Community colleges historically enroll most of the nation's lower-income and less academically prepared students, who are most likely to drop out of college.

Rather than insisting that these students take 15 credit hours, or more than they can handle both financially and academically, we need to look for ways to make their path to a degree easier. Weekend and online courses are important to non-traditional students. Older students who have been out of the classroom for years need academic mentors to help them map out a realistic path to an associate's degree. They need access to remedial courses that better prepare them for college-level work. All of this costs money, but is well worth the investment by both state and federal governments.

I have concerns that over communicating "15 to finish" might make some who do not take 15 credits feeling like they are failing or not on a path for success. Certainly for your traditional four-year student this concept is a good one, but it does not make sense for most of our students who often are at risk and balancing much more than just college classes.

It is also important to recognize that not every one is equipped to get a college degree. Community colleges offer hundreds of certificate programs, many of them created in response to the needs of a local manufacturer with jobs to fill. There are certificate programs in everything from welding to court reporting. These programs take less time and money to complete.

Completing a college degree within a certain time frame shouldn't be the only goal. Although we want students to earn a credential sooner we think that anyone who receives a certificate or degree, even if it takes five or seven years is a success. I have been to many commencement ceremonies where you see the tears of success from people who have worked so hard taking less than a full load of courses yet still graduating and improving their life and the lives of those around them.

Researchers and government policy makers have never walked in the shoes of a single mother struggling to get her RN degree because she wants a better life for her children, or a displaced factory worker who, at the age of 50, needs to learn completely new skills involving complex technology. It may take them longer, but in the end all that is important is that they succeed.

When discussing college attainment, we need to be both visionary and realistic. Those of us in higher education who had the luxury of a four-year residential college experience without the obstacles of financial concerns or family obligations need to make it as easy as possible for non-traditional student to achieve their goals. "15 to Finish" is not a good fit for everyone.