Hidden in Plain Sight: Understanding Part-Time College Students in America

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Author(s): The Center for American Progress

  • Marcella Bombardieri

Published: Sept. 6, 2017

Report Intro/Brief:
"Missy Antonio is a 37-year-old full-time mother who balances taking care of her toddler son and 8-year-old daughter with studying for a college degree. Her husband works long hours, so Antonio is often solo chasing after her not-yet 2-year-old from the wee hours of the morning, and getting her daughter off to school and back each day. During nap time and late at night, she studies to keep her grades up to get into the nursing program at her school, the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC).

Too often, it is assumed that the average college student is the 19-year-old living in a dorm and studying in the sunshine on a leafy quad. In reality, many of today’s students have more in common with Missy Antonio than they do with fresh-out-of-high-school undergrad living in a campus residence hall. Many of today’s college students are older and balancing college with considerable family and work demands. In many cases, that means they can only pursue their studies part-time. In fact, 37 percent of undergraduates seeking a college degree or other educational credential are attending college part-time. That is 6.5 million students out of the 17 million students enrolled in American colleges.

Sadly, the U.S. higher education system is failing far too many part-time students. Only about one-quarter of exclusively part-time students earn a degree within eight years of starting college. Even those who attend part-time for only a portion of their college career fare poorly; just more than half of these students eventually earn a degree. That is compared to about 80 percent of exclusively full-time students who attain a degree. Moreover, too many part-time students never come close to finishing college and earning a degree. Four in 10 students who attend college exclusively part-time in their first-year are not enrolled in classes the next year.

Low rates of part-time completion are not just bad for individual students who are seeking the opportunities that come with a college degree. The poor degree attainment outcomes of part-time students hold the entire nation back from meeting national educational needs that are key to keeping the United States globally competitive. Policymakers across the country have increasingly recognized the imperative to produce more college graduates in order to build a competitive economy. In fact, the United States needs more than 16 million more people to earn a postsecondary credential by 2025. The United States will never hit those targets unless part-time students are offered a more viable path.

In this report, the Center for American Progress details what is known about part-time students and their experiences, and explores what still needs to be learned to help them persist on the long road to a college credential. In addition to examining available data, the report shares the specific stories of part-time students at Maryland’s Community College of Baltimore County, a large community college where 7 in 10 students attend part-time. The interviews of part-time students offer insight on why students choose to study part-time, what barriers they face, and what supports help them maintain their educational momentum.

As this report makes clear, part-time students are hidden in plain sight—that is to say, that while there is some statistical data about this population, there is much more to learn about part-time students and what supports are needed to improve their prospects in college and beyond. Currently, data at the federal and state level fail to capture their experiences and outcomes. And while there are promising practices around advising and tutoring, accelerated developmental education, adequate financial aid, and child care, there’s limited research specifically focused on how best to serve the part-time student population. To the extent that policies address part-time students at all, it is often to offer incentives to encourage students to attend full-time instead. While reaching full-time status is a worthwhile goal for some students who are taking fewer courses than they reasonably could, viable solutions are still needed for students such as Missy Antonio, who cannot realistically take on a full course load.

The good news is that new insight about where part-time students are most likely to succeed—or fail—is on the horizon. The federal U.S. Department of Education has begun collecting part-time graduation rates from colleges and universities. These data have not yet been made public, but initial numbers are expected to appear later this fall. Once they are available, these figures will allow policymakers and researchers to take simple steps forward— for example, identifying institutions that are especially successful with part-time students and can share best practices with the rest of the field."