Why Students Should Take 15 or More Units Every Semester
Story Graduation Initiative

Why Students Should Take At Least 15 Units Every Semester

Mary Jane Horton

If you can manage a full course load, it can be an important step toward graduating in a timely manner.

Why Students Should Take 15 or More Units Every Semester

Taking a full course load isn't always easy, or possible, for everyone, but it will speed you toward picking up your degree. Photo courtesy of Cal State LA​


If you're interested in finishing college in four years, one of the best ways to ensure a timely graduation is to take a full course load—meaning a minimum of 15 units per semester.

"With each consecutive term a student takes, there is a potential off-ramp," says Jeff Gold, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Student Success Strategic Initiatives, at the California State University's Chancellor's Office, in Long Beach.

An "off-ramp" means that a student might leave college before graduating, perhaps never returning to get their degree.

"We hear all the time about students not being able to stay in school because they need to get a full-time job" or because of other demands, adds Gold. "Often, life gets in the way. But students who take 30 credits in their first year are shown, statistically, to be more likely to graduate on time."

So if a student is able, starting their freshman year—or when they begin at the CSU as a transfer student—taking a full course load kicks off their college career in the right direction and on a path directly aimed at commencement.

That's why taking a full course load is also one of the so-called "high-impact practices" encompassed in the CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025.

The goal of the initiative is to change how the CSU serves students to ensure all have the opportunity to graduate in a timely manner, while also realizing that each student's path to a degree may be different.

The benefits of graduating are indisputable: Students with a college degree typically earn 66 percent more than those with only a high school diploma; they're also far less likely to face unemployment.

And California needs more graduates with bachelor's degrees to power its future.

"The initiative is a necessary step," explains Gold, "since the state of California has a growing discrepancy between employers' needs and graduates with B.A. degrees. To meet those workforce demands, Graduation Initiative 2025 will add 100,000 more baccalaureate degree-educated citizens to California over the next 10 years."

The Benefits of Taking 15 Units or More

Even beyond graduating sooner, there are a number of good reasons for taking a full class load all the way from your freshman to senior year, says Gold.

For starters, he says, you'll end up spending more money if you take a low number of units. It's true that if you take fewer than six credits a semester the overall cost is less, but if you're taking seven credits it will cost the same as if you took 15.

"And," Gold adds, "for financial aid to kick in you also have to take more than 12 units a semester."

If students reach their fifth year of studies, it will cost them more for another year of tuition, of course. A student who graduates one year sooner saves an average of $8,500 in tuition, fees, books and supplies.

Even graduating just one semester earlier saves more than $4,000.

The longer a student stays in school, too, the longer they delay entry into the full-time workforce and getting their career started, adds Gold.

For Students Who Need to Work

Many CSU students must have a job while in college. If that's the case for you, try to secure an on-campus position if you can. It could make a difference in how many units you can take and, in turn, how soon you graduate.

"If a student works at an on-campus Subway, for instance, he will still be in the school environment, around other students, and with a boss who understands his studies," Gold explains.

Even better, he notes, is when a student gets a job related to her future career, such as a science major working in a lab. Many jobs like these are available through  work-study programs.

When You Need More Time to Graduate

Not all CSU students can take 15 or more units every semester, of course, for a variety of reasons.

"We need to be mindful to meet students where they are," stresses Gold. "Our students are overwhelmingly diverse and many are the first person in their family to go to college. A lot of them are struggling to put food on the table."

With that in mind, everyone within the CSU system—faculty, advisers, administrators—is focused on doing what they can to help keep more students in school.

"We want to encourage them to balance school and the rest of their lives," explains Gold. "And if they do need to take more time [to graduate,] that's fine."