Part-Time Students Deserve More Attention
Nearly four in ten college students are studying part-time, and most of them will never graduate. It’s a true scandal, one that much of the higher education world has managed to ignore.
To the extent that anyone talks about part-time students at all, it is often to argue that they should go to school full-time. That’s why many of the “free college” scholarship programs taking hold in states and local communities are only available to full-time students.
Without a doubt, the reasons to go full-time are excellent: Get more deeply immersed in your campus, find friends and mentors to support you, earn that diploma before a crisis derails you and get the paycheck boost from a degree sooner.
Yet, many of the 6.5 million part-time college students have their own excellent reasons. They are likely to be over 24 years old, working long hours, raising children or unable to afford a full-time course load. In “Hidden in Plain Sight,” my new report from the Center for American Progress, I argue that we need to work much harder to make part-time college attendance a viable path to a degree.
And we have a brand-new tool to help us do so in the form of federal data showing outcomes for students who start college part-time, either as first-time students or transfers. For the first time, we have a glimpse into how likely part-time students at a specific college are to graduate or transfer.
It’s also useful to take a close look at the lives of individual part-time students. Consider Missy Antonio, 38, who, like her parents before her, went straight to work out of high school. When she was laid off from an accounting firm in her 30s, she set her sights on nursing, a career that she figured would always be in demand.
Antonio is a full-time mom with a nine-year-old and a two-year-old. Her husband is working long hours to support the family, and they can’t afford childcare. So she can only take classes when her parents or in-laws can babysit. Naptimes, late nights and Sunday afternoons at the library are when she studies.
She expects it to take eight years to earn her BA in nursing.
Here's another example: Savonna Ward, 24, comes from a highly-educated family but didn’t know right after high school what she wanted for her education. She floundered while studying full-time at her first community college in Missouri where she didn’t always get the support she needed for her visual impairment. Anxiety and depression added to her burden. After a few semesters, her low grades got her kicked out.
Ward took a break and enrolled part-time at a different community college where she found supportive professors and meaningful extracurriculars. Taking classes part-time helped her regain her footing as a college student and gave her the confidence to transfer to the four-year college she now attends full-time.
Both Ward and Antonio have already beaten the bleak odds, which show that 41 percent of students who spend their freshman year part-time never make it to sophomore year.
The graduation statistics are also sobering: only a quarter of exclusively part-time students graduate, compared to the 80 percent of exclusively full-time student who finish. Among those who do some of both, half earn a degree.
There are promising ideas to help part-time students, including beefing up advising and tutoring, reforming the remedial path that traps students in long sequences of noncredit courses and making affordable childcare more readily available. But the truth is that part-time students have been neglected for so long, we don’t know very much about how to help them.
To change that, we need to put part-time students at the center of the conversation about how to improve student success. Researchers should be studying them, policymakers should be considering how new initiatives will affect them and institutions should be talking to them about what kind of help they need.
This is the right moment to turn our attention to part-time students. Part of the reason they’ve been hidden is that the federal government had no data on the graduation rates of part-time students at individual institutions. The debut of the new outcome measures from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics changes that. Now, anyone can look up a school’s results in a few seconds on College Navigator.
The part-time student population is growing faster than that of full-time students. Our future prosperity depends on helping them succeed.
Marcella Bombardieri is a senior policy analyst for higher education at the Center for American Progress.