Single mom battles the odds to pursue nursing degree at South Louisiana Community College _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- South Louisiana Community College nursing graduate Trish Fontenot celebrates with her classmates before their commencement ceremony earlier this month. SLCC is pushing students to take a heavier course load so they can graduate on time and save on student debt.

South Louisiana Community College is pushing students to take a full 15 credit hours each semester to help them move on more quickly to careers or to a four-year university — and save on student debt.

Initial results show the college’s push for students to take the full load of 15 credit hours — which typically translates to five, three-credit courses — has spurred an 84 percent increase in the number of first-time freshmen who registered for 15 or more credits compared to first-time freshmen who enrolled fall 2013.

“Eighty-four percent — that’s huge in our world,” said SLCC Chancellor Natalie Harder.

The college also saw an increase in its overall student population, with 27 percent of its degree-seeking students enrolled for 15 or more credit hours compared to 19 percent in fall 2013.

Harder said she asked advisers and staff to push students to register for 15 hours during orientation and advising sessions based on data she reviewed from Complete College America, a national nonprofit organization that works with states to increase the number of people with career training and degrees.

The data show that too few community college students were taking more than 12 hours a semester, which prolonged their college careers and, in many cases, pushed them deeper into student loan debt.

“Not many community college students take 15 hours, likely because the FAFSA designates 12 hours as full-time status,” Harder said.

“That, I believe, has contributed to the belief if you take 12 hours, you’re on track to graduate on time.”

The FAFSA — Free Application for Federal Student Aid — is a form students must file to secure any form of financial aid for college.

In addition to the push during orientation and advising sessions, SLCC also offered a late-start semester to allow students additional time to register for an extra class to bump up their course loads.

Adding another course doesn’t add to students’ tuition bill, so it’s not a money issue for the student, Harder said.

“The first two or three days of the semester, I stopped and visited classes to ask students, ‘How many of you are only taking 12 hours?’ ” Harder recounted. “Far too many hands went up in the air. I tell them, ‘I love you all, but I want you to get out of here.’ When you lay out the benefits to the students, it’s like a light goes off for them. Most didn’t understand that 12 hours doesn’t get them out in four semesters.”

This spring’s preliminary enrollment information shows a 63 percent increase among students who have enrolled in 15 or more credit hours compared to last spring.

Harder said the college does face a barrier to reach that course load — faculty.

“We’re almost sold out for the spring if we’re not able to find more faculty,” she said. “We have an urgent need for faculty in all our core courses — math, English, the sciences — and it’s not too late to apply.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.