Merced College’s Keith Law Sounds Off on “15 to Finish”

Professor Keith Law

For almost thirty years, Merced College’s Keith Law has been a persistent gadfly, contrarian, and thorn in the side of anyone advancing a proposal that hasn’t been subjected to rigorous academic scrutiny. Law teaches philosophy, and has always been willing to model himself after Socrates and other great philosophers who took their discipline and reasoning into the real world, concerned more with truth and justice than popular approval. Below, in an open letter to colleagues statewide, Law offers a thorough critique of the “15 to Finish” campaign, a proposal he feels could well be much more harmful than helpful for the state’s community college students. ed.

Dear Colleagues: 

If you work in the California Community College system, you are no doubt aware of the statewide marketing campaign referred to at Merced College where I teach as “15 to Finish.” After looking into the research upon which it is based I believe that the initiative is ill-conceived, and that the advertising materials plastered all over our campus are deceitful and shaming. As several students shared in various of my courses this week, the large scale poster in the front of the classroom made them feel as if they were not measuring up.

Banners, flyers and bookmarks are all over my campus asking students if they, “are on track,” to, “graduate on time,” with the implication, even if unintentional, that by taking fewer than 15 units and finishing in more than two years something is wrong. To put this into perspective, the press release on our own web page points out that, “only 4 to 5 percent of community college students nationwide complete in two years,” which means that the other 95% of our students who complete in more time are off track and late.

The initiative is predicated on the fact that students who take 15 units per semester graduate sooner and with a higher GPA than those who take fewer. This is touted as having been derived from actual research rather than the simple math upon which it is based. The problem is that the conclusion is a false cause fallacy which is one of the oldest in the book: correlation does not equal causation.

In their report titled, Momentum: The Academic and Economic Value of a 15-Credit First-Semester Course Load for College Students in Tennessee,  the authors of one of the research projects upon which these initiatives are predicated admit that they did not factor into their research, “information on students’ work and family obligations outside of college.” Of course this excluded factor is one of the main causes for why the other 95% of our students don’t take more units, often earn lower grades, and finish later. The authors admit this when they state that a main causal factor for taking less time to finish has to do with students’ lives outside of college and not their taking 15 units per semester.

Conversely, it’s also obvious that positive family situations (financial and academic support) are causally related to why a very small percentage of our students can successfully take 15 units. We should resist the implication that their success is more worthy of respect, as advertised on posters throughout our campuses, than any of the other student successes that required overcoming greater obstacles. The official press release on our web page offers a paragraph to reassure us that “some students” have obstacles that make 15 to Finish unfeasible; however, the fact that this is representative of the vast majority of our students rather than merely “some” is lost in a sea of misinformation.

In the comments section of the research article referenced above, Cal Poly Associate Professor of Physics Alex Small shared the following sober assessment of the research regarding which of the two factors—taking 15 units or family resources—caused the outcomes referenced:

“we don’t actually know if advising students to take 15 units is useful advice (because it will prepare them well) or spitting in the wind (because personal factors matter more). We can make our best guesses, but this study won’t help us assess the accuracy of our guesses.”

The data derived from the various studies has been converted into deceitful statistical claims that confuse our students. For one example, on the marketing materials saturating our campus students are told that “84% of students who took 15 units graduated in 2 years or less,” but nowhere does it state that this 84% only represents 4 to 5 % of the total student population.

Is faster really better?

Another problem with the argument has to do with the math. As stated, our official press release shares that Merced College is similar to the nation in that only 4 to 5 percent complete in two years. Then, on the flyers all over campus we read that 84% who take 15 units graduate in two years. But then further down the press release it states that at Merced College “15% of students enroll in 15 units.” If I am not wrong, 84% of 15% = 12.6% rather than the national average of 4 to 5 percent? This would mean that two to three times more students graduate from Merced College in two years than the national average, which is not likely the case. To make matters even more confusing, according to data I received from our Research Analyst, it looks like we are reporting that over 25% of our students received their AA/AS in two years, which is five to six times greater than the national average. Put simply, all of these claims can’t be correct.

It isn’t a bad idea to have councilors encourage those who can take more units to do so. However, it is out of proportion to embark on the grandest marketing campaign I have witnessed in my nearly 30 year career, especially given that it is based on a model that works for 5% of our students (or is it 12.6% or more?), and that is arguably shaming the rest for not measuring up.

“The financial reasons more than any others likely also underlie why the initiative is being pushed by politicians from DC to Sacramento and on down to our local level.”

In a second class that I teach, another student shared that, “This has more to do with increasing enrollments than benefits to students, ha? I don’t think it’s over-reaching to suspect that a main motive is indeed financial, as my student questioned. Of course, the more units we can get each student to take, the more FTES*, so it is likely not a coincidence that campuses all over California are embarking on the “15 to Finish” initiative when student turnout is low, and because student turnout is low.

The financial reasons more than any others likely also underlie why the initiative is being pushed by politicians from DC to Sacramento and on down to our local level. Regarding the financial side of the argument, one of the scariest claims that appeared in more than one article I read regarding “15 to Finish” advocates that we compel students by tying financial aid to taking 15 units, or at least offering more money as an incentive. This, of course, would further disadvantage the already disadvantaged students that make up the majority of those whom we serve.

On a personal note, one of the best pieces of advice that a community college instructor gave me when I was juggling work, family and college was that I should take fewer units. He shared correctly that no one down the road would be assessing how long it took me to graduate; rather, they would be looking at my GPA. It took me nine years to earn my bachelor’s degree, and I wound up loving college and my chosen major. On the other hand, a close relative of mine sped through college and wound up with very little fondness for his college years and no real love for his chosen major and later his career. If you ask me, I completed college on time and on track.

In another oft-cited article titled, Redefining Full-Time in College: Evidence on 15-credit Strategies, the author found that, “students working 30 or more hours per week did not graduate at higher rates when taking 15 credits, compared with students taking 12 units.” She then went on to conclude that “Institutions should not be too quick in leaping from promising early findings about 15-credit trends and redefining their own policies and requirements.” We should have heeded that advice.

One of the more troubling considerations in the above research was the warning that pushing students to take 15units may lead to more “negative course taking behaviors, such as dropping courses or enrolling in “easy” courses.” These behaviors are already rampant at Merced College, so the warning will be a highly probable outcome.

I regret that I wasn’t involved in our local task-force that reportedly assessed the research and decided to embark on 15 to Finish; I would have advised against it. But even if I had, in my experience once an agenda is formulated in DC or Sacramento, as was this one, and there is money to be made or saved, there is little regard for discouraging criticism whether sound or not and we simply board the bandwagon.

Keith Law

Instructor of Philosophy and Humanities

*Full-Time Equivalent Students; the number is used to determine funding by the state

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