Research in Higher Education

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 27–50 | Cite as

The Effect of Academic Load on Success for New College Students: Is Lighter Better?

  • Robert F. Szafran


Both students and advisers often assume that a lighter academic load during the first year of college will result in greater student success. This article examines that assumption. Academic load is measured in terms of credit load and course difficulty; success is measured in terms of GPA and retention. The experiences of a sample of first-year students at a comprehensive regional university are examined. While the credit loads for which students register are related to academic ability and prior academic success, the difficulty level of courses for which these students register is not. Variation in student credit loads is reduced because weaker students are required to take developmental courses but do not drop a corresponding number of college-credit courses. Contrary to common assumptions, students who register for more credits tend to earn higher GPAs and have greater retention even after controlling for academic ability, prior academic success, on-campus employment hours, and other background characteristics. Students who register for more difficult courses, however, tend to earn lower GPAs and experience lower retention. Any effect of credit load on retention appears to work through GPA. While much of the effect of course difficulty on retention also works through GPA, course difficulty does have a separate negative effect on one-year retention. While the possibilities that weaker students might be more successful with lighter credit loads or that stronger students might be more successful with more difficult courses were investigated, no significant interactions between prior academic success, academic load, and success were found.

retention grades credit load course difficulty first-year students 


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Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc. 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert F. Szafran
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SociologyStephen F. Austin State UniversityNacogdoches

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