Accelerating part-time students’ journey to a degree

The longer part-time students stay in school, the more vulnerable they are to leaving degrees unfinished. With part-time college enrollment expected to outpace full-time enrollment through 2027, college administrators have taken note and are looking for ways to improve retention and shorten time-to-completion for part-time students. Less than 20 percent of part-time students at four-year colleges graduate within eight years; the percentage is even lower at community colleges, according to The Hechinger Report.

The two most common obstacles part-timers face are scheduling conflicts and financial struggles. Many juggle multiple jobs and child care commitments, which can be difficult to align with required courses offered only during certain time slots.

With limited time to socialize on campus, part-time students also may lack a sense of belonging at their school. Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where 70 percent of students are part-time and 50 percent are parents, has focused on building a peer community for part-time students, in part by requiring them to take a “Finding your Future” seminar. “It allows them to be part of the culture here, and to feel like they’re part of a family, and there’s connection,” says adjunct professor Nichole Vatcher. “And I think it’s the connection that keeps them coming back.”

The debate over increasing course loads

Some institutions, meanwhile, are focusing on boosting students’ course load and momentum, given evidence that the more years a degree takes, the more vulnerable a person’s education is to disruptive life changes and funding shortages. Massachusetts’ three-year-old Commonwealth Commitment program freezes tuition for students who take a full course load and offers admission to state colleges for full-time community college students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average. Program participants are also required to take a seminar that introduces them to mentors and success coaches. More than 1,000 students have participated in this program, and those who took the seminar were 16 percent more likely to return in the spring, but early results show little impact on graduation.

However, going full-time and taking additional seminars may not be feasible for every part-time student, experts say. While it’s a laudable goal, colleges “will leave too many of [their] most vulnerable students behind if [they] only focus on that as the solution,” says Karen Stout, president of the advocacy group Achieving the Dream.

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