15 to Finish initiative targets timely graduations

Only 42 percent of Freshman go on to their Sophomore year with 30 credits, a statistic that has multiple implications for students as they try to complete their university education in four years.

The 15 to Finish initiative puts students on path for a timely graduation by encouraging them to take 15 credits each semester they are enrolled, or 30 credits each year to achieve a bachelor’s degree in a four year timeframe.

“We recognize that sometimes students will do 14 credits in one semester and 16 in another, but the goal is if students head into their college career with 15 credits a semester set for themselves as the average amount, then they will graduate in four years if they earn those credits,” said Sara Kinerson, NVU-Johnson Director of Advising.

The 15 to Finish initiative came into existence as a result of efforts by Complete College America. “That is an organization that we are members of, and they promote the 15 to Finish as one of their major initiatives,” Kinerson says. “Many of us have wanted this long before we became members with Complete College America, but I think that has put some energy behind the movement. NVU recognizes the importance of students’ progressing toward degrees in a timely manner, and so it goes well with that understanding. We want students to graduate.”

15 to Finish has support from both the Johnson and Lyndon campuses as well as the Vermont State Colleges System. Kinerson and Northern Vermont University Provost, Dr. Nolan Atkins, are assisting with bringing about 15 to Finish on the Johnson campus, while the Lyndon campus’ efforts are being led by Atkins and NVU-Lyndon’s Director of Advising Resources, Kate Gold.

“Nolan Atkins, the Provost, is certainly a driving force behind it,” Kinerson says. “The three of us have worked together closely on this. Jasmine Ziesler from the Chancellor’s Office is also leading a VSCS-wide initiative on this. It’s kind of coming from all angles. We really want students to graduate in four years.”

The 15 to Finish initiative is already making a significant impact on students. “This year, over 90 percent of the incoming Freshman were registered for 15 or more credits,” Kinerson says. “Our goal on the Johnson campus, and that’s Johnson specific, is to get 100 percent of Freshman with 15 or more credits, but sometimes that just doesn’t work for a student.”

In order to be eligible for financial aid, the standard number of credits for full-time first-year students is 12, which classifies them as full-time. “We’ve been watching their enrollments and while I don’t have an exact statistic yet on that group, as far as how many of them have dropped to 12, I can tell you that in recent years, and even not recent years, the average completion of 15 credits or more in the Freshman class is somewhere in the range of 42 percent, I believe,” Kinerson said. “We’re starting most students out with 15 [credits] but only about 42 percent are completing that in their first semester.”

What does 15 to Finish mean for a student’s academic and financial future? According to Kinerson, an immediate impact is timely graduation and therefore less of a financial burden on students and their families.

“The goal is really to make it very clear to students that there is a way to walk across that stage in four years,” Kinerson said. “We are here to help students do that. If they have a clear path to follow, and good support along the way, and they develop good skills of their own as far as academic skills…going to class, doing the assignments, talking with their instructors if they’re having trouble…. If they develop those skills, there is no reason they can’t graduate in four years. We want students to, for many reasons, but one of them is financial for the student; the longer a student stays in college, the more money they’re paying. We recognize that, and we want students to not have that experience if possible.”

How else is the 15 to Finish initiative supporting student success? Kinerson says, “One of the things that I am working on now with faculty departments, and should be wrapped up by the end of break, are updated finish-in-four plans. “We’ve created one for every major on campus, and the faculty are now reviewing and approving. Those are clear pathways to graduation, and we give them to all the incoming Freshman now to follow. It helps them track where they’re at and to have a roadmap to graduation that they can use with their program evaluation tool. The program evaluation is good at showing you what you need to do, but it doesn’t tell you when you need to do it, and so these finish-in-four plans tell students, tentatively, when they should plan to take which courses.”

Director of First-Year experience Margo Warden has advice on how to make graduating in four years by taking 15 credits a semester manageable. That begins with understanding what 15 to Finish means and availing themselves of help along the way. It is important, she says, “for students to be aware of what 15 to finish means, to be clear with the classes that they’re starting with, asking for help, using resources, working with their advisor to stay on track.”

So how does a student determine whether they are prepared to take 15 credits in their first semester? “They have phone conversations in the summer prior to entering NVU with their first-year advisor,” said Warden. “Balancing family, balancing work, balancing athletics, knowing who they are as a student and how they can best succeed. So, this is all sort of grist for the mill; they speak with their first-year advisor and work out the best plan.”

As a part of New Student Orientation, a short video is presented to students outlining the concept of 15 to Finish. “At the end of that video, I’m not sure exactly what the words are, but basically the message is, talk to your advisor,” Warden said. “So then, at Summer Orientation, they then have the opportunity to meet with their first-year advisor, who… introduces them to this academic community and the important role that the advisor plays, but then the advisor also talks about 15 to Finish. We continue to work with first-year advising; first-year seminar instructors connect students to campus resources such as academic support services, academic coaching, and resources in the library, so that students are getting these tools so that they can become a strong student at the university.”

The reason for the troubling statistic of only 42 percent of freshman going into their sophomore year with 30 credits is at this point elusive. “NVU is currently looking at the various reasons. So, we’re really looking at the data so that we can be really clear about the decisions that we need to make, but in the meanwhile, we’re doing the work of educating our students about the importance of 15 to Finish,” Warden says. “I think that really, some good work is happening right now to get students on track and keep students on track.”