In 2015, as part of an examination of sophomore success at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), the Graduation Initiative Steering Committee (GISC) discovered that roughly three out of five first-time college students began their second year having earned fewer than 30 college credits. Only 13% of new first-time students attempted 15 or more units (a “full load”) in Fall 2015, and around one quarter of undergraduates attempted a full load in any given term. Smaller unit loads pose a significant obstacle to “timely” graduation, as students must earn an average of 30 units annually in order to graduate with 120 units (the minimum units required for a CSUSM bachelor’s degree) within four years. Although over 80% of entering first-time, full-time students say they expect to graduate in four years or less, only 15% achieve that goal. In alignment with the CSU’s Graduation Initiative, by 2025 CSUSM aims to graduate 30% of its first-time, full-time class within four years. Unless students begin to attempt more units, earlier, it is unlikely that they will meet their time-to-degree goals or that CSUSM will meet its 2025 goal.
Since 2015, CSUSM has been engaged in inquiry and analysis around the following question: is taking a full load detrimental to student academic success? This work has included cross-campus consultation with stakeholders in Academic and Student Affairs, review of relevant literature on academic workload and momentum, examination of research and initiatives conducted by other institutions (e.g., 15 to Finish), and analysis of institutional data. These data suggest that, in many cases, undergraduate students attempting 15 or more units perform the same or better on average than those attempting fewer units. Informed by this work, CSUSM’s Unit Load Steering Committee is endeavoring to increase and clarify communications regarding time to degree and academic workload to better assist students in making informed decisions on the path to graduation. As the proportion of students attempting 15 units continues to increase, the campus will monitor impact through ongoing exploratory analysis and repetition of unit load studies.
CSUSM once again replicated its study of the relationship between unit load and academic success (operationally defined as term GPA for these analyses) in Fall 2018. Results remained consistent: students who attempted 15 or more units received higher term GPAs, on average, than students who attempted 12 to 14 units, and in most cases this difference was statistically significant. This pattern remained whether looking at new vs. continuing students, first generation students, male and female students, students from underrepresented minority groups, or students in the lowest quartiles of prior academic performance (i.e., eligibility index score, transfer GPA, cumulative GPA).