Providing excellent support to part-time students starts with understanding their experience.
A 2017 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) paints a picture of part-time student life. To complete the report, CAP researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, as well as findings from secondary literature.
Where part-time students enroll
According to the report, part-time students generally attend public institutions (86%), particularly community colleges (60%). Roughly two thirds are over the age of 24 and just under half (42%) work full-time.
Only about a quarter of part-time students earn a bachelor’s degree within eight years of starting college, according to the report. And four out of every 10 part-time students do not return after their first year of college.
Barriers that prevent part-time students from earning a degree
Black and Hispanic part-time students are more likely to drop or stop out than their white peers, according to a report from EAB. After analyzing data and interviewing more than 100 community college leaders, EAB researchers found that part-time community college students—who are more likely to be black or Hispanic—tend to have lower completion rates than their white counterparts. After switching to part-time for just one semester, black and Hispanic students see a drop in completion rates by 31% and 39%, respectively, compared to a 29% decline for white students.
Part-time students face a range of challenges, particularly spotty access to financial aid. In one of the CAP report’s examples, a full-time student could receive financial aid to cover half of attendance costs, whereas a part-time student in the same financial situation would only receive financial aid for 17% of their costs.
Some states don’t offer any financial aid to part-time students, sometimes as an incentive to enroll full-time, says Marcella Bombardieri, a senior policy analyst on the postsecondary education team at CAP and the report’s author.
How to support part-time students
Although research from the University of Texas at Austin found that that just one semester of full-time attendance could boost community college students’ likelihood of graduating, “full-time is not going to work for every community college student,” explains Christina Hubbard, a community college expert at EAB. “Underrepresented minorities and low-income students, they’re more likely to be working. So, to expect them to go 15 credits at a time is setting them up to fail,” she adds.
Instead, Hubbard recommends that colleges implement programs that adapt to the realities of the part-time student experience, such as compressed terms, weekend courses, or blended learning opportunities. Colleges can also offer stronger support for part-time students by designing learning communities on campus, for example.
Bombardieri recommends that administrators offer more resources, such as high-quality tutoring, evening and weekend hours, and career development opportunities. She also encourages administrators to continue working with lawmakers to support better outcomes for part-time students.
Finally, Bombardieri urges institutions to track more data related to part-time students because their numbers are on the rise, and there has historically been very little federal data about part-time students (Donachie, Education Dive, 9/8/17).
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