Skip Navigation

Follow us on:

Ask A REL Response

June 2017


What research has been conducted on how credits earned during freshmen year are correlated to graduation rate?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on teacher professional development. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed the effects of professional development on teacher performance and student outcomes in K-12 education. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Attewell, P., Heil, S., & Reisel, L. (2012) What is academic momentum? And does it matter? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 341, 27-44.
    From the abstract: "The academic momentum perspective suggests that the speed with which undergraduates initially progress in college significantly affects their likelihood of completing a degree, an effect separate from those of high school academic preparation and family socioeconomic status. Growth curve modeling of undergraduate transcript data reveals that the number of credits attempted in the first semester of college sets a trajectory that influences later chances of degree completion. Several techniques addressing selection bias indicate that delay between high school and starting college, and also attempting a low course load in the first semester (part-time attendance), are associated with lower degree completion, while attending summer school after freshman year is associated with significantly better graduation chances. In sum, the central claims of momentum theory are supported. (Contains 6 tables and 1 figure.)"
  2. Attewell, P., & Monaghan, D. (2016). How many credits should an undergraduate take? Research in Higher Education. 57(6), 682-7133.
    From the abstract: "Low completion rates and increased time to degree at U.S. colleges are a widespread concern for policymakers and academic leaders. Many "full time" undergraduates currently enroll at 12 credits per semester despite the fact that a bachelor's degree cannot be completed within 4 years at that credit-load. The "academic momentum" perspective holds that if, at the beginning of their first year in college, undergraduates attempted more course credits per semester, then overall graduation rates could rise. Using nationally-representative data and propensity-score matching methods to reduce selection bias, we find that academically and socially similar students who initially attempt 15 rather than 12 credits do graduate at significantly higher rates within 6 years of initial enrollment. We also find that students who "increase" their credit load from below fifteen to fifteen or more credits in their second semester are more likely to complete a degree within 6 years than similar students who stay below this threshold. Our evidence suggests that stressing a norm that full time enrollment should be 15 credits per semester would improve graduation rates for most kinds of students. However, an important caveat is that those undergraduates whose paid work exceeds 30 h per week do not appear to benefit from taking a higher course load."
  3. Davidson, J. C. (2014). Leading indicators: Increasing statewide bachelor's degree completion rates at 4-year public institutions. Higher Education Policy, 27(1). 85-109.
    From the abstract: "For the United States to maintain national and global economic stability, colleges must graduate more students. Four-year completion rates have declined and less than one-third of full-time, degree-seeking students graduate in 4 years. Some researchers and policymakers have suggested "leading indicators" to track postsecondary educational achievement. This study examined the relationship between pre-college factors (e.g., socio-economic status, college readiness, race/ethnicity, etc.), leading indicators (e.g., earning 30 credits at the end of year one, continuous enrolment, summer course credit, etc.) and degree completion at Kentucky's 4-year public institutions. The results showed that the effects of some leading indicators varied based on pre-college factors. Overall, factors related to credit accumulation had the most impact on the likelihood of increasing graduation rates. Policy and practice should consider the impact of pre-college factors on the effectiveness of leading indicators to most efficiently increase degree completion rates."
  4. Kwenda, M. N. (2014). Tracking and explaining credit-hour completion. Higher Learning Research Communications, 4(1). 46-56.
    From the abstract: "This study highlights factors associated with changes in earned hours for two cohorts of incoming freshmen during their first year. The objectives of this study are twofold: (a) to derive model(s) regressing the cumulative hours earned and differential hours earned on student demographic, socioeconomic, and academic characteristics; and (b) to provide succinct conclusions that will increase students' satisfactory academic progress (SAP) based on the results. The study sample of 1,598 cases is made up of students from two cohorts of first-time, four-year degree-seeking students who started in the Fall semesters of 2010 and 2011, respectively. There were two measures of the dependent variable: Cumulative hours earned and the difference in earned hours between the Fall and Spring semesters. Multiple linear regression was used to explain the outcome variables using a student's demographic, socioeconomic, and academic characteristics. The study found that there have been changes at Cameron University related to the freshman first year experience, while there were no significant differences detected between the 2010 and 2011 cohorts. In addition, demographic variables generally did not significantly explain earned hours or changes in earned hours. The significant predictors were generally tied to a student academic standing or factors for which the institution can exercise some control."
  5. Radford, A., W., & Horn, L. (2012). An overview of classes taken and credits earned by beginning postsecondary students. WEB Tables. NCES 2013-151rev. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
    From the abstract: "These Web Tables provide an overview of classes taken and credits earned by a nationwide sample of first-time beginning postsecondary students based on data from the Postsecondary Education Transcript Study (PETS) of the 2004/09 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. PETS collected transcripts from all the postsecondary institutions students attended, providing a complete 6-year record of students' coursetaking and credit accumulation. Topics covered in these Web Tables include precollege credits, remedial education participation, withdrawals and repeated courses, and credits earned in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Tables also present credits earned in each year of enrollment and total credits earned by whether students earned a credential."

Additional Organizations to Consult

  1. National Center for Education Statistics -
    From the website: "The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations. NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES fulfills a Congressional mandate to collect, collate, analyze, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally. The structure and activities of the center are as follows (click below for staff listings for each program)."


Keywords and Search Strings
The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • freshman college credits earned related to graduation rate
  • College credits, freshmen, graduation rate

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2001 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.