The Peril of Pushing Students

With national on-time completion rates sitting at 19% for those seeking four-year degrees (non-flagship) and 4% for those seeking two-year degrees, Complete College America is calling on state higher education and university leaders to recognize that “full-time” should mean students take 15 credits per semester.”

With these words, that prominent nonprofit organization launched a national push termed “15 to finish.” It had a laudable goal — to help more students complete degrees and in doing so make college more affordable. The approach is based on evidence of an association between full-time enrollment and degree completion, that was established decades ago by Cliff Adelman of the National Center for Education Statistics.

It makes sense that students who move through college more quickly finish their degrees faster. Of course, it may not be that it’s the pace of their momentum that causes improved outcomes — students who move faster vs. slower are often different people who are destined to finish college at different rates independent of their pace. But there is research on academic momentum suggesting that a faster pace pays off. For example, one of my Wisconsin HOPE Lab postdoctoral fellows, Dave Monaghan writes in a recent paper with Paul Attewell:

Academically and socially similar students who initially attempt 15 rather than 12 credits do graduate at significantly higher rates within 6 years of initial enrollment. We also find that students who increase their credit load from below fifteen to fifteen or more credits in their second semester are more likely to complete a degree within 6 years than similar students who stay below this threshold. Our evidence suggests that stressing a norm that full time enrollment should be 15 credits per semester would improve graduation rates for most kinds of students.

So I wasn’t surprised that today the White House announced plans to provide a $300 “bonus” to Pell recipients who take 15 credits rather than 12. The Administration told Inside Higher Ed that “ a $300 addition to the maximum Pell Grant award for students who take at least 15 credits per semester would help an estimated 2.3 million students “stay on track” or accelerate their progress to graduation.”

Maybe. But also, maybe not. It is one thing to say that students should move more quickly through college and quite another to push them to do so with financial incentives.

Tying financial aid to performance is the heart of the performance-based scholarship initiative led by MDRC since 2008. That program tested the impact of providing bonus payment for financial aid recipients tied to academic performance, and involved different populations with different requirements in varied contexts. None of the variations involved tying financial aid to 15 credits, or focused on impacts for students who typically take 12 credits (already a full-time load). Moreover, despite its focus on measuring performance, MDRC did not evaluate the impacts of performance+ money as compared to impacts of money alone.

In a more relevant study, Judith Scott-Clayton examined a West Virginia scholarship program that requires students who did very well in high school to take at least 30 credits a year in college in order to keep a scholarship. This requirement is eliminated when a student enters the senior year of college. The results suggest that the scholarship boosts educational attainment, but again, Scott-Clayton is hard-pressed to discern if this was due to the money or the motivation provided by the requirements. She conducts a number of sensitivity tests, but none of these even remotely approximates random assignment. Moreover, we can hardly extrapolate the results from a West Virginia merit scholarship program to a nation of Pell recipients.

Many Pell recipients continue to face serious financial constraints in college, as the purchasing power of the Pell and state grant aid has declined, while living costs — and tuition — continue to rise. Research clearly indicates that giving them more grant aid will help them complete degrees at higher rates. The money is necessary. But what will happen if it comes at an additional price associated with being pushed to take more credits than they otherwise would have? Is this positive motivation, or a punitive approach driven by political requirements to ration financial aid?

A new paper from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab suggests that policymakers ought to proceed with caution. In a prior study (forthcoming in the May issue of the American Journal of Sociology), my colleagues and I reported on the results of a randomized experiment of a private need-based scholarship program that boosted rates of on-time bachelor’s degree completion. In this newly published paper I co-authored with Peter Kinsley, we leverage that same experimental study to test the hypothesis that pushing students to take more credits will generate positive returns. We find that while indeed this motivation seems to help some Pell recipients, it disadvantages others — exacerbating inequality. We conclude that tying aid to performance standards may unintentionally induce students to reduce enrollment intensity and thereby extend time to degree in an effort to “make the grade.”

The problem is that while Pell recipients are motivated — irrespective of financial aid — to do well in college, they do not always know how. Holding individuals accountable for outcomes that they do not know how to achieve produces unintended consequences. Consider that in Georgia, the famed HOPE program caused students to take easier courses in order to get good grades. Similarly, we found that pushing students to take more courses may lead to similar behaviors — they may do more poorly in their classes, withdraw or drop classes more often, or even drop down to part-time after doing more than they can handle. Remember, Pell recipients must make “satisfactory academic progress” in order to retain their grants — any of those shifts would put that in jeopardy.

Monaghan and Attewell also indicate reason for concern. While academic momentum promotes completion in general, they find that “undergraduates whose paid work exceeds 30 hours per week do not appear to benefit from taking a higher course load.” The most financially disadvantaged Pell recipients are among the most likely to work.

Pell recipients need a bigger Pell. I understand that this Congress does not want to provide it, and the White House is simply trying to do what they can in the meantime. But there’s a slippery slope to this sort of paternalistic policymaking. We run the risk of reifying in federal financial aid policy the baseless assumption that Pell recipients don’t care about college or are “academically adrift.” The Pell was intended to support students based on financial need, in an effort to reduce income inequality. Layering performance requirements onto it may unintentionally turn it into yet another engine of inequality.