How Does the 15 to Finish Initiative Affect Academic Outcomes of Low-Income, First-Generation Students? Evidence from a College Promise Program in Indiana

183 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2019 Last revised: 13 Nov 2019

See all articles by Roy Y. Chan

Roy Y. Chan

Indiana University Bloomington, School of Education

Date Written: January 20, 2019


As the cost of college tuition has increased, policymakers and practitioners have begun to examine the proliferation of college promise programs (i.e., tuition-free grant programs, debt free college programs) across the United States. These initiatives typically aim to lower or eliminate the cost of college attendance and in doing so increase college completion among underrepresented groups: predominantly low-income, first-generation, students of color. While several states and cities have announced or launched promise programs designed to improve college retention and completion, scholars of education policy and practitioners know relatively little about the implications of these initiatives, and whether certain policies or procedures are best suited to specific contexts.

The purpose of this study is to determine what effect a statewide 30-credit hour annual completion policy had on the academic outcomes of college promise program recipients at two 4-year public research universities, Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) and Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). The policy, which has been emulated in many states, aims to encourage students to take 15 credits per semester (or 30 credits per year) and thereby remain on course to complete a bachelor’s degree in 4 years (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2015; Lumina Foundation, 2017; SHEEO, 2008; U.S. Office of the Press Secretary, 2009). While the new legislation adopted in Indiana is an attempt by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE) to improve college completion and on-time graduation of students, very few scholar-practitioners, aside from a few within the University of Hawaii system and Complete College America (CCA), have provided evidence that attempting to complete 30 credits per academic year significantly improves academic performance and subsequently, degree completion rates among underrepresented students. This study examines the implementation of and subsequent policy change to the early-commitment college promise program, Indiana Twenty-First Century Scholarship (TFCS) Program.

Using administrative data from the Indiana University’s University Institutional Research and Reporting (UIRR) office, representing 7,842 low-income students who enrolled shortly before and adopt the policy was implemented, this observational study employs a quasi-experimental, difference-in-differences (DiD) approach to explore the impact of the Indiana Code Title 21 (IC-21-12-6-7) (30 credit hour annual completion policy) on students’ academic outcomes. Specifically, this quantitative study examines the heterogenous treatment effects of this policy change on the academic performance (e.g., cumulative credit hours accumulated, cumulative grade point average [GPA], degree completion status) of Indiana TFCS recipients at IUB and IUPUI, compared to non-TFCS Pell recipients from the same time period (Fall 2011 through Fall 2014 cohorts). The study will be guided by the following research questions: (1) Did the 30-credit hour annual completion policy (15 to Finish) achieve its intended effects: increasing credit accumulation, improving student progress and increasing graduation rates? and (2) Are any of the identified policy effects moderated by demographic factors (race, gender, generation) and pre-college characteristics (high school GPA, SAT score)? Does the policy appear to have differential effects for various types of students?

Results suggest that the 30-credit hour annual completion policy showed a positive significant effect on credits and grades but had no effect on degree completion status at IUB (a small town, primarily residential, more selective, flagship research university). In addition, the study found a significant interaction effect for Gender and Generation Status when accounting for pre- and post-policy groups. Specifically, Gender yielded significant interaction effects on TFCS recipient academic outcomes in terms of Year 1 Cumulative Credits, Year 2 Cumulative Credits, and Year 1 Cumulative GPA, suggesting that female students at IUB appear to have significantly benefited from the 30-credit hour annual completion policy. The policy had no interaction effect on low-income, first-generation students enrolled at IUPUI (an urban, primarily nonresidential, moderately selective research university) for both the academic progress continuous variables and the college completion status binary variables. These findings demonstrate that the policy, which was related to a broader, national 15 to Finish initiative did not produce its intended effect, nor did it have any adverse consequences for low-income, first-generation students.

The results of this policy evaluation research have important implications for policymakers, politicians, university administrators, and advanced practitioners who seek to design college promise programs for completion. This research contributes to the empirical literature on state policies aimed at increasing student progression and completion. Moreover, this study extends beyond the CCA’s 15 to Finish initiative and highlight the broader effects of required academic performance policies on student success. The study will inform public debate about and adjustments of the policy and will also highlight several directions for future research.

Keywords: promise programs, higher education, college completion, low-income students, postsecondary outcomes, difference-in-differences

Suggested Citation

Chan, Roy Y., How Does the 15 to Finish Initiative Affect Academic Outcomes of Low-Income, First-Generation Students? Evidence from a College Promise Program in Indiana (January 20, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Roy Y. Chan (Contact Author)

Indiana University Bloomington, School of Education ( email )

Bloomington, IN
United States
812-855-7510 (Phone)

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