Fewer than half of college students graduate in four years, but there are ways to improve the odds.
It may sound counterintuitive, but freshmen college students who take a full load of reasonably demanding courses are more likely to graduate from college on time.
That’s part of the message Western Washington University has been conveying to its students in a campaign called “15 Gets You There,” which encourages students to work hard from the outset.
Nationally, only about 40 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen graduate in four years with a bachelor’s degree; the rate is 59 percent after six years. Western’s graduation rate after four years is similar to the national average, but is better than 70 percent after six years.
Steven VanderStaay, the Western vice provost for undergraduate education, says he frequently talks to parents who have advised their incoming freshmen children to start with a light load — 12 credits — believing that will give them more time to study, build confidence and get a higher GPA.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
But when Western analyzed college grades for students who entered Western with similar GPAs and SAT scores, the university discovered that students who took a full load of classes, or 15 credits, got better grades than students with reduced loads.
How could that be? “If you have less time to manage, you manage your time better,” VanderStaay said. And starting out full-time also helps students get used to the college workload from the outset, he said.
It’s also cheaper, in the long run, to take a full load. Like the state’s other universities, Western charges a flat tuition rate — students who take 10 credits pay the same as students who take 18 credits. Students must earn 180 credits to graduate from college — or, 15 credits per quarter. Falling behind means having to take an extra quarter, or more, to finish out a degree.
Here are some more tips from VanderStaay:
• Talk to an adviser before signing up for classes. At many schools, including Western, advising isn’t mandatory. But Western’s research shows that students who use an adviser “do so much better than students who make their own choices,” VanderStaay said, because an adviser can help steer students away from bad combinations of classes. For example, many ambitious students make the error of signing up for “Introduction to Logic” — a math class with a high failure rate — along with a second math class in the same quarter. An adviser would steer a student away from that combination.
• Use the tutoring center. Nearly every school has one, and Western’s research has shown that students who use the tutoring center earn a half-grade higher than students who don’t. VanderStaay likes to tell the story of one Western student who came to college with basic math skills, and ended up advancing through the curriculum to calculus, by making use of the tutoring center.
• Live on campus, at least for the first year. Students who live on campus are more likely to finish their freshman year and return the following year, perhaps because they become more connected to the university.
• Don’t take the hardest math course you’re placed into if you barely qualified for that course. You’ll likely do much better with the next-hardest math class.
• And don’t take your hardest courses in fall of your freshman year, when you’re just getting used to the workload. Save more difficult courses for winter quarter, VanderStaay advised.
• Students who take a part-time job, working 10 to 15 hours a week, actually do better in school than those who don’t work at all — again, it could be related to time management.
But anything more than 20 hours is counterproductive, according to the research, VanderStaay said. He knows some students try to work 30 hours a week and then take a light load of 12 courses, but if you do the math, it doesn’t pencil out — it’s not cheaper than just trying to get it all done at once, he said.