This ‘Freshman 15’ Fattens Wallets, Not Students

One of the best ways to slash college costs might also be among the most overlooked. Here's a simple math lesson that all students and their loves ones need to understand.

This ‘Freshman 15’ Fattens Wallets, Not Students Photo by Andresr /

No one looks forward to the traditional “Freshman 15” — the 15 pounds students are commonly said to gain in their first year of college. But there’s another manner of “Freshman 15” that you or college-bound loved ones might want to consider.

It entails students taking at least 15 credits per semester during their freshman year of college. This practice benefits both pocketbooks and grades, according to a recent analysis by EAB, a research firm that serves educational institutions.

The analysis was prompted by a growing public service campaign called “15 to Finish,” which started at the University of Hawaii. EAB sought to learn how taking 15 credits per semester has affected a broader group of students.

For its analysis, EAB studied academic-record data on nearly 1.3 million full-time freshmen at 137 institutions, including public and private colleges and universities. Of these freshmen, 56 percent took at least 15 credits per semester, on average, while 44 percent were enrolled in 12 to just under 15 credits per semester.

Note that 12 credits per semester is generally the minimum a college student must take to be considered full-time.

Academic benefits

EAB found that the students who took an average of 15 or more credits per semester during their freshman year:

  • Had higher grade point averages, or GPAs, at the end of their freshman year (3.04), compared with their full-time peers who took fewer credits (2.68). This trend persisted even among students who achieved only average GPAs in high school. It also persisted among students of lower socioeconomic status.
  • Had higher retention rates at the end of their freshman year (90 percent), compared with their full-time peers who took fewer credits (81 percent).
  • Were more likely to take at least 15 credits per semester for the remainder of their time in college (15.9 credits per semester, on average), compared with their full-time peers who took fewer credits as freshmen (13.5 credits per semester, on average).

Financial benefits

Most colleges that take up a “15 to Finish” initiative offer flat-rate tuition to students who take more than 12 credits, according to EAB. In other words, students at such schools who take 15 credits per semester, for example, are getting three credits for free every semester. That’s a 20 percent discount, folks.

To look for schools with “15 to Finish” initiatives, do an internet search for the phrase “15 to Finish” followed by a particular state or college.

Taking an average of at least 15 credits per semester has financial benefits regardless of the institution a student attends, however. It puts students on track to graduate within four years, thereby avoiding additional semesters in college.

This is simple math if you know that most four-year degrees require about 120 hours, yet it might also be one of the most overlooked ways to reduce college costs. As EAB notes:

“That extra time in college comes at a cost, both in tuition and in the opportunity cost of delayed entry to the workforce.

Take for example, J.P. Livingston, whom we recently told you about in “3 Universal Money Lessons From a 29-Year-Old Millionaire Retiree.” She attributes her financial success in part to pushing herself to graduate college in three years.

Not only did it save her on college expenses, but it enabled her to enter the workforce sooner and therefore start earning income sooner.

For students who take on loans, graduating sooner and starting to work sooner also means they can start paying down their debt sooner. As a result, they stand to incur less interest over the life of their loans.

For more ways to cut college costs, check out:

Have you found other ways to save on college? Tell us about them by commenting below or over on our Facebook page.

Karla Bowsher
Karla Bowsher
I’m a freelance journalist and former newspaper reporter who has covered both personal and public finance. I've worked for a top 50 major metro daily and a community newspaper as well as ... More


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