As nontraditional students and adult learners continue to comprise a larger percentage of the total higher education student population, the number of students who prefer or require a part-time postsecondary schedule is likely to grow. However, a focus on boosting college completion rates has led to a focus on assisting students to become full-time learners in their pursuit for a degree. “15 to Finish,” a national push to encourage students to take 15 credits per semester, may be perfect some students, but not necessarily for all, according to a new analysis conducted by Civitas Learning, an organization analyzing higher education outcomes. Mark David Milliron, the company’s co-founder and Chief Learning Officer, says higher ed needs to move away from a diametric “either/or” view of full-time vs. part-time.
“What we’re trying to do is get people awake to the idea that if 70% of your students are part-time ... you should think about the pathways your part-time students are taking, and making sure those are clear and coherent as well,” he said. “So, it’s not an either/or conversation. It’s not 'better than,' it’s 'better with.'”
The report, which is being released Wednesday and is entitled “Community Insights: Emerging Benchmarks & Student Success Trends From Across The Civitas,” noted that approximately 62% of students at community college are attending on a part-time basis. Data was collected from a subset of 60 of Civitas' partnering institutions, which enroll almost 1.4 million students altogether. Milliron said that while there has been a pronounced push to get students up to full-time status, this assumed that all students could attend full-time if they received some assistance. However, he said, small additions to a part-time student’s course load may have a large impact on the success rate. Instead of encouraging students to take 15 credits, MIlliron said, higher ed institutions could see positive results from encouraging part-timers to add on just one more course.
“You want them to be successful, too,” he said, adding institutions needed to adopt a culture of optimization that would enable them to help full-time and part-time students find success, even if members of the latter group did not transition into full-time. “Little moves with big populations can have big outcomes.”
Civitas’ analysis of the data found that the average gap in persistence between full-time and part-time students was 12.03%, but that part-time students could increase their success rate by adding one course. The largest jump in median persistence came for students who took two courses compared to only one, though there was a 6.10% jump from students who took three courses as opposed to two. There continues to be evidence of positive outcomes for students who add one additional course, though those jumps decrease in size as the number of courses increased. Despite this analysis, the report cautioned that adding even one more course may not be an option for students who must attend only part-time due to financial issues, or other personal or professional commitments.
Many colleges and states have instituted initiatives to push students towards enrolling full-time, and in many cases, financial aid is structured to most benefit full-time students as a means to incentivize full-time enrollment for students; according to a recent report by the Education Commission of the States, the average full-time student with a family income below $30,000 attending a four-year college would have about half the cost paid, while a student with an identical background only attending part-time would receive about 17% of the cost of attendance. Many states exclude part-time students from receiving aid altogether.
The report cited numerous case studies of institutions with success in closing persistence gaps between full-time and part-time students, including South Texas College, the University of Central Oklahoma and Sinclair Community College, which only see a 4% difference in persistence between full-time and part-time enrollees. The school has worked to reduce unnecessary credits while ensuring that each student has an individual advisor. Milliron said institutions need to be clear about their pathways to degrees; if a four-year institution’s catalog only shows degree paths for a full-time student, that does not help a part-time student craft their own postsecondary path.
“It’s not that '15 to Finish' is a magic thing; you’ve got to make clear, coherent pathways for students, get them on the pathways and keep them on the pathways, understanding those part-time students are on the path and even giving them the right nudge at the right time,’ he said.
Milliron said he saw a great amount of interest and energy around the realization that part-timers and other nontraditional students are becoming the new normal, noting that the conventional model of an 18-year-old who enrolls, attains a job after graduation and then retires is quickly becoming outdated. He said schools needed to understand that different models may be necessary to ensure success for different students.
“We have to get better at trying and testing,” he said.