College & Workforce Readiness

Report Finds Part-Time College Students Rarely Graduate

By Caralee J. Adams — September 27, 2011 3 min read
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What many think of as a traditional college student—one who lives on campus, attends classes full time, and doesn’t need to work much—makes up only 25 percent of those in higher education today. Three-quarters of students are college commuters, often juggling families, jobs, and schools. Four in 10 attend part time.

Outside of being an interesting demographic shift, this new normal on campus has significant implications for completion, according to a report, Time Is the Enemy: The Surprising Truth About Why Today’s College Students Aren’t Graduating and What Needs to Change, by Complete College America, a national nonprofit based in Washington. The findings include self-reported data from 33 states (Click here for state-by-state numbers.)

Even when given twice as much time to complete certificates and degrees, about 25 percent of part-time students finish a four-year degree in eight years, compared with 61 percent of those who attend full time, and 8 percent get an associate degree in four years, compared with 19 percent of full-time students. Just 12 percent of part-time students get a one-year certificate in two years, while 28 percent of those going full time finish.

This report is unusual in that it looks at the success and failure of part-time students; the federal government requires colleges and universities to track only students who are first-time and are going full time. “All students are now being counted. We have a much more complete picture of where we stand ... and what needs to be done so that all students have a fair shot at success,” the report says. It also urges states to uniformly and regularly measure the progress of part-time and full-time students.

The high cost of college has forced many Americans to work while going to school (50 percent work more than 20 hours a week), extending the years in school and allowing other demands to take over, leading to dropouts. Also, the report found, students often get bogged down in remedial classes or take courses unrelated to their degree.

While getting a bachelor’s degree should take four years, it takes full-time students on average 4.7 years and part-time students 5.6 years.

Among the ideas to fix the problem, suggested by the report:

Reduce the time it takes to earn a certificate or degree. Consider shorter semesters, less time off between terms, and year-round scheduling. Make sure unnecessary credit requirements are not added to programs, and create comprehensive transfer agreements to make it easier for students to take credits across campuses, systems, and states.

Embed remediation in regular college curricula. Rather than sticking underprepared students in developmental courses, start them in credit-bearing classes in the first year, with extra class time and tutoring. Overhaul the placement system, and revisit the structure of remedial math, which can be a barrier for many students.

Restructure programs to match working students’ schedules. The report suggests college use block schedules with fixed classroom meeting times (perhaps 8 a.m. to 2 pm.) so students can have a predictable time to be available for work each day. Provide peer support and a learning network for students of similar backgrounds in the same program.

Require formal, on-time completion plans for every student, updated annually. Put caps on credit hours, so students don’t waste time on extra classes. Also promote online learning and allow students to move on once they’ve demonstrated competency to reduce the amount of time they must be in class.

“Unless we move with urgency, today’s young people will be the first generation in American history to be less educated than their predecessors,” the report notes. “Consider this a sobering wake up call—and an urgent appeal for action now.”

Complete College America is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which provides support to Education Week’s parent company, Editorial Project in Education), the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Lumina Foundation for Education (which underwrite coverage of district high school reform and P-16 alignment, respectively, in Education Week.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.