College & Workforce Readiness

Even One Full-Time Semester Boosts Odds of College Completion, Study Says

By Catherine Gewertz — April 19, 2017 2 min read
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A new study finds that community college students boost their chances of graduating when they enroll full time, even if it’s for only for one semester.

The findings in Even One Semester: Full-Time Enrollment and Student Success, are based on national survey data from more than 60,000 students, and analysis of about 17,000 of those students’ transcripts, by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Given these findings, colleges should consider asking every student one straightforward question: ‘Is there any way you could attend college full time, even for one semester?’” the study said.

Researchers have long known that full-time enrollment increases students’ odds of completing degrees. For many students, however—especially those in community colleges—full-time attendance isn’t always possible. But the new report shows that even one semester can have a significant payoff.

Getting a strong start helps, too. Enrolling full time in the first semester gives students an edge. (A 2016 study by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that students who take 15 rather than 12 credits in their first semester are more likely to complete degrees.)

Attendance patterns are “fluid” for many students; More than half have attended school part time at some points, and full time at others, according to the report. Students who have always attended college full time tend to be more engaged, persist from one year to the next, complete courses, and earn credentials than those who have always attended part time.

Students with more fluid attendance patterns often share many of the characteristics of those who attend full time, suggesting that any experience as a full-time student confers a benefit, the report said.

Engagement appears to be one of the key dynamics at play in the better outcomes of students who attend full time for at least some of their time in college. Those who have never attended full time are more likely to report that they never work with classmates on assignments or discuss their schoolwork outside of class with peers, teachers, or family members. They’re more likely to say that they put less effort into their assignments.

The report encourages community colleges to reflect on ways they could encourage and support full-time attendance. It also suggests that colleges ask themselves how they might better engage part-time students, such as helping them forging better connections with faculty and advisors, and including them in orientations, which are often required only of full-time students.

Tom Sugar, the president of Complete College America, said in a statement that the new report “provides more valuable evidence that time is the enemy of college completion. The longer college takes, the more life gets in the way, and the less likely students are to graduate.”

He argued that colleges must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for making changes that make it easier for students to attend college full time, such as streamlining remediation and reworking students’ schedules to allow them to manage work while going to school.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.