Number of Credits Accumulated and the Probability of Graduation

The evidence indicates that the more credits a college student has accumulated, the more likely that student is to graduate.

There are many reasons that this might be the case.  One is that the more credits someone has, the shorter the delay to the reward of graduation, which increases the student’s motivation to do the remaining work needed to graduate.

Another is that the more credits someone has accumulated, and therefore the less time there is to graduation, the fewer the opportunities there are for something to occur in the student’s life that will interfere with graduation.

Still another possibility is that students who have accumulated many credits are more likely to have taken and passed more credits each semester than is the case for other students, and so are also more likely than other students to take and pass more credits per semester in the future.  Such habits help students to complete their degrees.

Accumulating many credits has been described as constituting “academic momentum,” whereby having accumulated credits propels students to completion.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that accumulating more credits increases the probability that a student will complete his or her degree, and so a good bet for helping students to complete consists of helping them to accumulate additional credits, including at a higher rate.

This conclusion also means that, if you want to compare the relative graduation rates of different groups of students that are exposed to different interventions, you need to make sure that, at the start of the interventions, the groups are matched in terms of the numbers of credits that they have already accumulated.

For example, suppose you want to compare the relative graduation rates of students who start at a college as freshmen (what we can call native students) with students who transfer into that college as juniors.  At entry to the college, the transfer students will likely already have accumulated one-fourth to one-half of the total credits that they need to graduate, but the freshmen will have started at the college with zero credits.  To do an apples-to-apples comparison, the transfers need to be compared to students who started at the college as freshmen, but who have already accumulated, on average, the same number of credits as the transfers.  When such a comparison is made, transfers are less likely to graduate than are native students, with a common reason being loss of credits on transfer.

The fact that probability of graduation increases with the number of accumulated credits has implications both for how we help students graduate and for how we investigate what other factors affect their graduation.

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