Is catering to part-time students a smart move for colleges?

A new report from Complete College America shows institutions must start meeting shifting demographics and student need.

Part-time students comprise almost 50% of college populations overall, and yet they don’t receive the same attention or opportunities–especially at public four-year institutions–as their full-time colleagues.

Complete College America’s new report “Part-Time Students Must Be a Full-Time Priority” uncovers the very slow acceptance of this important and growing group of students as issues of time and affordability limit their options in starting and reaching completion. Those struggling to attain degrees are often not white students but the traditionally underserved and those who must work long hours or meet other family obligations in addition to attending classes.

The percentage of students who begin part-time and make it to that finish line is staggeringly low, even for those who are Pell eligible: less than 20%. By comparison, 46% of full-time, first-time students reach that mark, and far more who attend four-year institutions.

“The research has long been clear that time is the enemy of completion for students—regardless of full- or part-time enrollment status. However, because of the broken economics of paying for college, part-time study is a necessity for learners balancing the complex demands of family, education, and career,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America. “At a time when students from historically excluded backgrounds are disproportionately enrolled part-time, this research makes it clear that meeting the needs of part-time students is an equity imperative.”

Using the National Center for Education Statistics’ Outcomes Measures Survey as a benchmark, CCA says higher education has made strides in trying to get at least 60% of adults to earn a credential by 2025. But while completion has increased by double digits over the past decade and white students have closed in on attaining that goal, less than one-third of all Latinx and Black adults have gotten there. For some, degrees have been pushed further from reach because of increases to tuition and fees.

CCA also notes there is a 35% gap between full-time students who attend four-year schools and part-time students. So what needs to happen for this group of students to gain momentum?

“Part-time students must be given the same resources, access and support from institutions and policymakers as their full-time counterparts,” Charles Ansell, Vice President for Research, Policy and Advocacy at Complete College America. “Ultimately, we need to make the cost of full-time attendance more affordable, make part-time students more efficient, and ensure that every student—regardless of enrollment status—has the support and structure they need to succeed.”

More from UB: Forget 4 years, colleges struggles to see students graduate in 5

At the end of its report, CCA offers a series of recommendations, which include more flexibility, lower costs, better advising and giving prior credit. They also recommend that institutions ensure robust wrap-around resources for part-time students, notably financial assistance in times of need and continuing the work they did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two keys that will further support part-time students and break down barriers to successful outcomes, according to CCA: 1. That higher education continue to acknowledge their value and not just cater to traditional students; and 2. the federal government expands the pool of financial aid and not limit it for those who do earn incomes on the side, especially since one-third of all college students work full time.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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