Hidden in Plain Sight

Part-time students have a long haul when it comes to earning a certificate or degree. We may tend to lump part-timers all together monolithically, but their characteristics are quite diverse, as illustrated in a comprehensive analysis by Marcella Bombardieri at the Center for American Progress. Please have a look.

As reported here often, an important contemporary movement in higher education seeks to increase the proportion of full-time students at all institutions, including community colleges. One particular strategy is called “15 to Finish,” referring to the number of semester hours students should take each term if they want to graduate in a timely manner. The grim chronology is fairly straightforward when students attend part-time and studies urge that a full load should be defined upward from 12 to 15 hours. Financial aid programs such as Pell Grants should conform to this new standard, the argument goes.

The article cited above indicates that a full-time strategy may be fine for many students, but for others, especially at community colleges, not necessarily. For one thing, we often assume that part-timers support themselves with good jobs, but that’s often not the case. Students may have small children or other family responsibilities precluding full-time enrollment, for instance. Their incomes are often very low.

A host of changes to financial aid, child care facilities, and other programs would be helpful in getting students enrolled full-time. But there is also something we can do on an individual level.

We can stop discouraging students from full-time enrollment during advisement, which we sometimes do (with the best of intentions) after listening to their personal responsibilities. Our response is often something like, “Wow, that’s a lot on your plate. Maybe you should just take a couple of classes for now.” At the very least, we might point out to them the statistical likelihood of graduation, given the size of their load. You can find some good data in the article cited above. It’s sort of like the prognosis your doctor tells you about, in taking a particular medicine for a problem.

A full-time strategy is not appropriate for many, many students. It’s complicated. But we should dig a little deeper when advising students to sort out this complexity.