This memo describes the momentum course load analysis with updated momentum categories as well as an exploration of course load combinations in the first year. This analysis is modeled after Belfield, Jenkins, and Lahr (2016).
Firstterm momentum students refers to those attempting at least 15 hours in their first term; these students’ outcomes are compared to those who took only 1214 hours in their first term. Firstyear momentum students attempted at least 30 hours in their first year (fall, spring, summer) and are compared to students who attempted less than 30 hours in their first year. All analyses described in this memo are based on cohorts of first time freshmen in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 and are limited to students who took at least 12 hours in their first term. The momentum year analysis excludes first time freshmen that were not enrolled for the full academic year (fall and spring or fall, spring, and summer).
It is important to note that the change in definition of momentum term/year led to a difference in the makeup of the groups. At the outset of this analysis, I defined course load groups as nonmomentum: 1113 hours in the first term (less than 27 in the first year) and momentum: 14+ in the first term (27 or more in the first year). There were 25,866 firsttime freshmen who attempted 14 credit hours in their first term who are now included in the nonmomentum group. In addition, there were 3,968 firsttime freshmen who attempted 11 credit hours in the first term who are no longer included in this analysis.
Table 1. Comparison of Updated Momentum Groups 

1113 hrs 
14+ hrs 
1214 hrs 
15+ hrs 
59,465 
88,264 
81,363 
62,398 
Overall, the results of this updated analysis are consistent with the findings resulting from the former definitions of momentum. When accounting for the differences between students who choose to take 15+ hours versus 1214 hours in the first term, I find that firstterm momentum students are 6 percentage points more likely to graduate in six years than students who attempt 1214 credit hours in the first semester. Likewise, firstterm momentum students earn 7 more credit hours within six years compared to nonmomentum students, when controlling for baseline differences between the two groups. Larger effects are found for firstyear momentum students: students taking at least 30 credits in their first year are 13 percentage points more likely to graduate and earn 16 more credit hours on average in six years than students taking less than 30 credits in the first year. Results vary somewhat across sector.
I also explored outcomes associated with various combinations of first and second term course load. It seems that students are better off on average when they attempt 15 or more hours in both the fall and spring terms of their first year. Interestingly, students who attempt 1214 hours in the first fall and then 15 or more hours in the following spring term are perform better on average than students who start out with a momentum course load (15 or more in the first term) and then take a nonmomentum course load in the second term.
Descriptive Information
Students attempting at least 15 credit hours in the first term maintain their momentum through 18 terms of enrollment and earn more credits compared to students taking fewer hours in the first term (Figure 1). For example, in their ninth term, momentum term students earned an average of 63.3 credit hours, whereas students attempting 1214 hours in the first term did not reach 63 hours earned until their 11th semester. Note: the first 18 terms in Figure 1 include summer semesters.
Figure 1. Average Cumulative Hours Earned in 18 Terms by 1st Term Course Load
Table 2 shows the student characteristics for firstterm momentum versus nonmomentum students. While there are similarities in student characteristics across both groups, it should be noted that there is a greater proportion of Pell recipients and slightly smaller proportion of HOPE recipients among the non momentum students. Additionally, the nonmomentum students have lower HS GPA and SAT scores on average than momentum students. The baseline differences between the firstterm momentum and nonmomentum students are somewhat diminished compared to the former momentum definition (11 13 and 14+).
Table 2. Comparison of Means by First Term Course Load 


1214 hrs 
15+ hrs 
Female 
55.8% 
52.7% 
Black 
21.8% 
24.7% 
Hispanic 
5.5% 
5.0% 
Asian 
5.4% 
7.3% 
White 
61.3% 
57.3% 
Other race 
6.0% 
5.7% 
Received Pell in 1st term 
38.1% 
35.3% 
Received HOPE in 1st term 
56.6% 
57.8% 
HS GPA 
3.22 
3.28 
SAT math 
536 
553 
SAT verbal 
532 
543 
ACT composite 
23 
23 
Instate 
93.2% 
90.8% 
N 
81,363 
62,398 
The data presented in Table 3 suggest that most of the firstterm momentum students are also firstyear momentum students: 74 percent of students who took at least 15 hours in the first term also attempted
at least 30 hours in the first year. Similarly, nonmomentum term students are also nonmomentum year students1. This pattern is consistent across sectors.
Tables 4a and 4b compare credit hours attempted and earned at certain points in time for momentum and nonmomentum students. Firstterm momentum students earn approximately 89 percent of their attempted credits in the first term, while nonmomentum students earn 88 percent. Firstyear momentum students, on the other hand, earn about 94 percent of their attempted hours in the first term while nonmomentum year students earn about 88 percent of their first term attempted credits.
Regression Results (Table 5)
According to the logistic and OLS regression models in Tables 5a and 5b, students taking a firstterm momentum course load (15+ credits) are 6.2 percentage points more likely to graduate within six years (p < 0.001) compared to nonmomentum students. Students taking a firstyear momentum course load (30+ credits) are 12.0 percentage points more likely to graduate within six years (p < 0.001). Likewise, firstterm momentum students earn 7.5 more credit hours on average (p < 0.001) than nonmomentum students, while firstyear momentum students earn 15 more credit hours on average (p < 0.001). Across all of the regression models, larger effects are observed at comprehensive and state universities and smaller effects are observed at research universities and state colleges. It may be the case that students at research universities already have a higher likelihood of graduating in the first place so that initial course load does not make as much of a difference. At state colleges, a smaller percentage of students were counted as momentum students (30 percent compared to 4050 percent in the other sectors), which may have resulted in a smaller effect than seen in the other sectors.
Propensity Score Matching Results (Table 6)
To better compare momentum and nonmomentum students, I used propensity score matching (PSM) to estimate the average treatment effect of taking at least 15 credit hours in the first semester compared to taking 1214 credits as well as the effect of taking at least 30 hours in the first year relative to less than 30 hours in the first year. According to the average treatment effect presented in Table 6, students are 6.1 percentage points more likely to graduate within six years if they attempt at least 15 credits in the first term compared to only 1214 credits (p < 0.001). Likewise, students are 13.0 percentage points more likely to graduate if they attempt at least 30 credits in the first year instead of less than 30 hours (p < 0.001). Students earn 7.2 more credit hours on average within six years if they take at least 15 hours in the first term compared to only 1214 credit hours (p < 0.001) and earn 16.4 more credit hours on average if they attempt at least 30 credit hours in the first year compared to less than 30 hours. As with the regression results, effects vary across sector such that larger effects emerge in comprehensive and state universities and smaller effects are observed at research universities and state colleges.
Course Load Combinations in the First Year (Table 7)
Given the differences in magnitude of effect of firstterm momentum versus firstyear momentum, it seems that students with a cumulative momentum year course load outperform nonmomentum year
1 This is somewhat different from the analysis that defined momentum as 14 or more credits and nonmomentum as 1113 credits. In the former analysis, 4050 percent of the nonmomentum students attempted a momentum course load within the first year (with the exception of the state colleges).
students, regardless of firstterm momentum status. To better understand the importance of timing the momentum course load, I explored graduation and credit accumulation for various combinations of course loads through the first academic year (fall, spring, summer). I primarily focused on the fallspring combinations (1214 and 1214, 1214 and 15+, 15+ and 1214, and 15+, 15+) presented in Table 7, but I also examined the first term/first year combinations provided in Table 10 (1214 and <30, 1214 and 30+, 15+ and <30, 15+ and 30+).
The students who attempted a momentum course load in both the fall and spring terms were by far better off than any other course load combination. Fallspring momentum students earned 95 percent of their attempted hours in the first term, earned an average of 97.3 credit hours in six years, and had a sixyear graduation rate of 68.0 percent. Interestingly, the group with the next best outcomes are those that took 1214 hours in the fall and at least 15 in the spring—they earned 96 percent of the hours attempted in their first term, earned on average 91.9 credit hours within six years, and 63.7 percent students graduated in six years. Students with a momentum course load in the fall but a non momentum course load in the spring performed worse than students who took a momentum course load in the spring: they earned only 88 percent of their firstterm attempted hours, earned an average of 84.4 hours in six years, and 55.4 percent graduated in six years. It may be the case that the students who earned a greater portion of their attempted hours in the first term felt more confident to take the same amount or more hours in the next term. Moreover, this initial success is associated with better longterm outcomes.
It is important to note that there are some demographic and academic differences across the four course load groups (Table 8). In particular, a greater percent of the students who took 1214 hours in the fall and spring received Pell compared to the students who took at least 15 in both terms.
Additionally, students taking 1214 in both terms had lower high school GPA, SAT, and ACT scores on average compared to the students taking at least 15 in both terms.
Similar patterns emerge across sectors (Table 9) and when looking at the course load across the first year (Table 10).
While the most favorable outcomes are observed for those who take double momentum course loads, it seems to be more important for students to end the first year with momentum rather than simply begin the year with momentum. Moreover, students who are likely earn a smaller portion of their attempted credits might be better off staring the fall term with 1214 hours and then moving toward momentum course loads in the spring and summer terms.
Table 3. First Term and First Year Course Load by Sector
Research Universities  1214 hrs (1st term) 
15+ hrs (1st term) 
1214 hrs (1st term) 
15+ hrs (1st term) 


# 
% 
# 
% 
# 
% 
# 
% 
# 
% 
# 
% 
< 30 hrs (1st year) 
51,969 
70% 
15,157 
26% 
18,864 
72% 
5,658 
30% 
13,075 
66% 
4,884 
23% 
30+ hrs (1st year) 
22,557 
30% 
43,593 
74% 
7,319 
28% 
13,504 
70% 
6,679 
34% 
15,963 
77% 
N 
74,526 
100% 
58,750 
100% 
26,183 
100% 
19,162 
100% 
19,754 
100% 
20,847 
100% 
State Colleges 


1214 hrs (1st term) 
15+ hrs (1st term) 


# 
% 
# 
% 
# 
% 
# 
% 
< 30 hrs (1st year) 
11,436 
67% 
3,192 
23% 
8,594 
75% 
1,423 
28% 
30+ hrs (1st year) 
5,717 
33% 
10,486 
77% 
2,842 
25% 
3,640 
72% 
N 
17,153 
100% 
13,678 
100% 
11,436 
100% 
5,063 
100% 
Note: Students who were not enrolled for the full first academic year (fall and spring or fall, spring, and summer) are excluded
Table 4a. Average Credit Hours Attempted and Earned by First Term Course Load and Sector
All Institutions 
Research 
Comprehensive 
State Universities 
State Colleges 


1214 hrs 
15+ hrs 
1214 hrs 
15+ hrs 
1214 hrs 
15+ hrs 
1214 hrs 
15+ hrs 
1214 hrs 
15+ hrs 
N 
81,363 
62,398 
27,374 
19,821 
21,214 
21,892 
19,159 
14,752 
13,616 
5,933 
Table 4b. Average Credit Hours Attempted and Earned by First Year Course Load and Sector
All Institutions 
Research 
Comprehensive 
State Universities 
State Colleges 


< 30 hrs 
30+ hrs 
< 30 hrs 
30+ hrs 
< 30 hrs 
30+ hrs 
< 30 hrs 
30+ hrs 
< 30 hrs 
30+ hrs 
hours attempted term 1 
13.5 
15.9 
13.5 
15.8 
13.5 
15.9 
13.4 
15.9 
13.2 
16.4 
hours attempted term 9 
61.4 
79.2 
71.7 
87.9 
60.1 
79.1 
56.0 
76.1 
46.3 
59.7 
hours attempted term 18 
85.2 
106.8 
99.9 
118.0 
89.4 
111.3 
76.6 
102.2 
54.3 
67.0 
N 
67,126 
66,150 
24,522 
20,823 
17,959 
22,642 
14,628 
16,203 
10,017 
6,482 
Notes: All students attempted at least 12 hours in their first term; Table 4b excludes students who were not enrolled for the full first academic year (fall and spring or fall, spring, and summer).
Table 5a.
Logistic Regression Models Estimating the Impact of Momentum Course Load Likelihood of Earning Any Degree Within 6 Years (marginal effects presented)

All Institutions 
Research 
Comprehensive 
State Universities 
State Colleges 
(15+ hours in 1st term) 
0.0615 
0.0137 
0.0889 
0.0931 
0.0602 

(0.003) 
(0.004) 
(0.005) 
(0.006) 
(0.008) 
Firstyear Momentum N 
106,922 
38,967 
32,085 
24,451 
11,419 
Table 5b. OLS Regression Estimates for Impact of Momentum Course Load on Cumulative hours earned within 6 years 


All Institutions 
Research 
Comprehensive 
State Universities 
State Colleges 
N 
112,891 
39,627 
33,617 
26,480 
13,167 
N 
105,728 
38,405 
31,687 
24,230 
11,406 
significant at p < 0.001. 
Table 6. Propensity Score Matching Estimates of Momentum Course Load Effects on Likelihood of Earning a Degree and Hours Earned within Six Years

All Institutions 
Research 
Comprehensive 
State Universities 
State Colleges 
Earning any degree within 6 years 

Firstterm Momentum: 15+ hours in 1st term v. 1214 hrs 

Av. Treatment effect 
0.061 
0.015 
0.087 
0.095 
0.063 

(0.003) 
(0.004) 
(0.005) 
(0.006) 
(0.009) 
Av. Treatment effect on the treated 
0.061 
0.013 
0.089 
0.093 
0.074 

(0.003) 
(0.005) 
(0.006) 
(0.006) 
(0.009) 
Firstyear Momentum: 30+ hours in the 1st year v. < 30 hrs 

Av. Treatment effect 
0.130 
0.054 
0.184 
0.175 
0.141 

(0.003) 
(0.004) 
(0.006) 
(0.006) 
(0.009) 
Av. Treatment effect on the treated 
0.134 
0.060 
0.182 
0.175 
0.140 

(0.003) 
(0.005) 
(0.006) 
(0.007) 
(0.010) 
Cumulative hours earned within 6 years 

Firstterm Momentum: 15+ hours in 1st term v. 1214 hrs 

Av. Treatment effect 
7.1 
4.5 
8.7 
9.8 
3.7 

(0.260) 
(0.380) 
(0.519) 
(0.588) 
(0.629) 
Av. Treatment effect on the treated 
7.2 
4.6 
8.7 
9.8 
4.0 

(0.279) 
(0.394) 
(0.539) 
(0.628) 
(0.647) 
Firstyear Momentum: 30+ hours in the 1st year v. < 30 hrs 

Av. Treatment effect 
16.0 
10.5 
20.0 
21.0 
11.8 

(0.256) 
(0.371) 
(0.517) 
(0.581) 
(0.613) 
Av. Treatment effect on the treated 
16.4 
14.0 
19.7 
27.0 
11.1 

(0.280) 
(0.424) 
(0.539) 
(0.599) 
(0.653) 
Notes: propensity scores were matched based on the nearest neighbor matching algorithm using teffects psmatch in stata; robust standard errors are in parentheses; the momentum term course load is attempting at least 15 credit hours in the first semester and the control group is students who attempted 12 to 14 hours in the first semester; the momentum year course load is attempting at least 30 credit hours in the first year and the control group is students who attempted less than 30 hours in the first year (these models are limited to those who took at least 12 credits in the first term); data includes cohorts of first time freshmen in fall 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011; variables used to create PS matches include gender, race, financial aid in the first term (Pell and HOPE), HS GPA, SAT score, and residency status; for momentum year models, students who were only enrolled in the fall term of their first year were excluded; all treatment effects are significant at p < 0.001 
Table 7. Selected Outcomes by First and Second Term Course Load

1214 hrs (1st spring) 
15+ hrs (1st spring) 

Av. Hours attempted in term 1 
1214 hrs (1st fall) 
12.8 
13.2 
Av. Hours earned in term 1 
11.6 
12.6 

% grad in 6 yrs 
48.2% 
63.7% 

Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
75.9 
91.9 

N 
40,895 
23,584 

Av. Hours attempted in term 1 
15+ hrs (1st fall) 
17.1 
16.5 
Av. Hours earned in term 1 
15.1 
15.6 

% grad in 6 yrs 
55.4% 
68.0% 

Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
84.4 
97.3 

N 
22,973 
30,175 
Note: Students who took less than 12 in spring (n = 12,354) are excluded; only students enrolled for a full first academic year are included (fall and spring, or fall, spring, and summer)
Table 8. Comparison of Means by First and Second Term Course Load

1214 in both terms 
1214 in fall, 15+ in spring 
15+ in fall, 1214 in spring 
15+ in both terms 
Female 
55.0% 
58.2% 
51.7% 
53.2% 
Black 
21.0% 
22.9% 
24.8% 
24.7% 
Hispanic 
5.5% 
5.3% 
5.1% 
5.0% 
Asian 
4.8% 
7.3% 
5.4% 
9.2% 
White 
62.8% 
58.8% 
59.1% 
55.7% 
Other race 
5.9% 
5.7% 
5.6% 
5.4% 
Instate 
94.3% 
91.4% 
93.1% 
88.5% 
Received Pell in 1st term 
39.4% 
34.8% 
36.9% 
33.0% 
Received HOPE in 1st term 
58.5% 
62.2% 
59.6% 
59.9% 
HS GPA 
3.22 
3.31 
3.26 
3.32 
SAT math 
532 
550 
546 
562 
SAT verbal 
529 
543 
540 
547 
ACT composite 
22 
23 
23 
23 
N 
40,895 
23,584 
22,973 
30,175 
Note: Students who took less than 12 in spring (n = 12,354) are excluded; only students enrolled for a full first academic year are included (fall and spring, or fall, spring, and summer)
Table 9. Graduation Rates and Credit Accumulation by First and Second Term Course Load and Sector
Research Universities 
1214 hrs (1st spring) 
15+ hrs (1st spring) 

% grad in 6 yrs 
1214 hrs (1st fall) 
67.2% 
77.2% 
Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
93.0 
103.8 

% grad in 6 yrs 
15+ hrs (1stfall) 
70.9% 
76.5% 
Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
99.1 
106.9 
Comprehensive Universities 
1214 hrs (1st spring) 
15+ hrs (1st spring) 

% grad in 6 yrs 
1214 hrs (1st fall) 
46.9% 
61.7% 
Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
79.2 
92.7 

% grad in 6 yrs 
15+ hrs (1stfall) 
52.0% 
69.9% 
Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
84.6 
100.3 
State Universities 
1214 hrs (1st spring) 
15+ hrs (1st spring) 

% grad in 6 yrs 
1214 hrs (1st fall) 
38.8% 
58.2% 
Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
68.4 
87.8 

% grad in 6 yrs 
15+ hrs (1stfall) 
46.9% 
61.9% 
Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
76.1 
91.9 
State Colleges 
1214 hrs (1st spring) 
15+ hrs (1st spring) 

% grad in 6 yrs 
1214 hrs (1st fall) 
26.7% 
36.0% 
Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
48.8 
57.0 

% grad in 6 yrs 
15+ hrs (1stfall) 
34.6% 
41.1% 
Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
52.6 
57.0 
Note: Students who took less than 12 in spring (n = 12,354) are excluded; only students enrolled for a full first academic year are included (fall and spring, or fall, spring, and summer)
Table 10. Outcomes by First Term and First Year Course Load

<30 hrs (1st fall, spring, summer) 
30+ hrs (1st fall, spring, summer) 

Av. Hours attempted in term 1 
1214 hrs (1st fall) 
12.8 
13.2 
Av. Hours earned in term 1 
11.4 
12.7 

% grad in 6 yrs 
50.0% 
66.4% 

Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
73.3 
93.1 

N 
50,339 
22,512 

Av. Hours attempted in term 1 
15+ hrs (1st fall) 
15.4 
17.3 
Av. Hours earned in term 1 
13.0 
16.1 

% grad in 6 yrs 
50.6% 
67.9% 

Av. Hours earned in term 18 (6 yrs) 
75.0 
95.1 

N 
13,647 
43,483 
Note: Only students enrolled for a full first academic year are included (fall and spring, or fall, spring, and summer); includes data for all institutions.