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This 'Freshman 15' could save you $300,000

  • College freshmen who take fewer than 15 credits per semester are less likely to graduate on time.
  • 52.8 percent of students at four-year private nonprofit colleges graduate within four years.
  • Taking six years to complete a four-year degree costs the typical grad $300,000.

The "Freshman 15" is typically a warning to incoming college students about weight gain, yet the term could also serve as an aspiration — at least when it comes to course load.

College students who take fewer than 15 credits per semester during their freshman year are less likely to graduate within four years (i.e., on time), according to a new analysis from college consulting firm EAB. Its data shows 44 percent percent of incoming college students register for 12 to 14 credits.

EAB analyzed records of nearly 1.3 million full-time college freshmen at 137 institutions, for the period of summer 2011 through spring 2016.

The problem is simple math. Although 12 credits is typically the minimum required to attain full-time status and be eligible for financial aid, it's not enough to meet graduation requirements for a bachelor degree within four years, said Ed Venit, senior director of strategic research for EAB.

"If you don't take that extra class, you're going to have to make it up somewhere." -Ed Venit, senior director of strategic research, EAB

Twelve credits multiplied by two semesters a year for four years, comes to 96 total. Most bachelor degree programs require at least 120 credits (which works out to 15 per semester), and some, even more, according to CompleteCollege.org.

"If you don't take that extra class, you're going to have to make it up somewhere," said Venit.

Many students lag behind. Just 52.8 percent of students at four-year private nonprofit colleges graduate within four years, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Those rates drop to 33.5 percent for students at public four-year colleges, and 22.5 percent at for-profit four-year colleges.

Delayed graduation is an expensive miss. A 2016 NerdWallet study estimated that students in a four-year program who take six years to graduate can expect to lose as much as $300,000 — in additional tuition and student loan interest, as well as lost wages and retirement savings from a delayed entry to the workforce.

To get students on track, some colleges have started to adopt programs encouraging students to take 15 credits per semester. With families worried about the cost of college, improving time to degree is one way to lower costs and reduce student loan burdens, said Venit.

University of Central Florida launched its "Think 30" campaign in 2015, touting the time and cost benefits of completing 30 course hours per year, and offering resources to help map out a path to graduation.

"We try to create a mindset that graduation starts Day One," said Delaine Priest, associate vice president for student development and enrollment services at UCF.

It's too early to say how the program will influence on-time graduation rates. But in the 2015-2016 academic year, 64 percent of the college's full-time freshmen took 30 credits, up from 60 percent who did so a year earlier. The "Think 30" cohort also had an average GPA of 3.2, versus 2.6 for those who took 24 or fewer credits.

Before you bulk up your courseload, here are four things to consider:

Capability

Think about whether taking a bigger courseload makes sense for you, Venit said. Competing responsibilities like work or family could make that a difficult prospect, for example, and not all students are ready for the additional academic pressure.

"Certainly there are students in this dataset for whom 15 credits is a bad idea," he said.

(But it's worth noting that EAB's analysis found even students who had struggled academically in high school benefitted from taking 15 credits in college. Compared to students who took fewer college credits, they were more likely to have higher GPAs at the end of their freshman year and more likely to stay in college.)

Cost

How much will taking an extra course or two cost you? Some college are "flat rate," meaning full-time tuition is the same whether you're taking 12 or 15 credits, Venit said. (And maybe even more than that, depending on college policy.) Adding an additional class is free, although you'll still have extra bills for textbooks and supplies.

Other colleges charge per unit, meaning you'll have a bigger tuition bill to cover. But the college may provide extra aid to cover the expenses of taking an additional course, said college expert David Levy, a co-author of "Filing the FAFSA." Check with the financial aid office.

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Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Need

Work with your academic advisor to map out a path to graduation, Levy said. That can ensure you're on track, and help head off potential issues, like making sure you get into that required class that's only offered once a year.

You might have other avenues to pull together enough credits to graduate on time, too, from coming in to college with advanced placement credits to intercession or online courses you can take outside the typical semester.

Deadlines

Many students are already on campus and ready to start classes. Pay attention to your college's deadlines to add or drop a course, Levy said. You may have only a few weeks to change your schedule if you want to bulk up your courseload — or drop a class if a heavier load proves unsustainable.

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