The conventional 15 credits per semester may be the path to completion for some community college students but it’s not that way for all. While students fresh out of high school probably benefit from full-time enrollment in college, a recent national study shows that non-first-time (NFT) students find more success when they can combine both full-time and part-time enrollment.
“For the working adult attending community college, it’s extremely difficult to add full-time coursework to full-time employment and family raising,” says Dave Jarrat, vice president of marketing for InsideTrack, a coaching organization that works with students, colleges and universities and is one of five coalition members that sponsored the study.
“These students were more likely to complete associates degrees if they mixed full- and part-time enrollment and were less likely to drop out in general, regardless of degree,” he adds.
The report, the first of its kind, is the collaborative effort of InsideTrack, the American Council on Education, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the University Professional & Continuing Education Association and the National Student Clearinghouse.
Adult students join the conversation
The initiative came about partly because data on previously enrolled students had been absent from the conversations about higher education, which focused primarily on the traditional four-year, first-time, straight-out-of-high school student.
“We need to increase the proportion of adults with college credentials to meet workforce needs,” says Jarrat. “But we can’t fix the problem if we don’t measure it,” he adds.
Most college students today fall into the “post-traditional” category, comprising some combination of part time, full time, returning, working, studying online or raising families. Yet policymakers often associate college with the four-year, residential experiences they may have had, likely affecting decision-making.
“Fifteen to finish was generally the movement and it’s true that traditional 18-year-olds do much better full time. But for working adults, particularly those attending community college, it’s not the case,” says Jarrat. “We need to account for the fact that post-traditional students are the new normal.”
What the mixed approach means now
The study, which examined two cohorts of student data from the National Student Clearinghouse, also revealed that, in general, completion rates among NFT students were quite low.
Exclusively part-time students fared the worst in terms of completion and dropout rates.
“The discipline and persistence to complete in half time is enormous,” says Jarrat. “Mixed enrollment allows them the flexibility to adjust and adapt. Students can go full-time when they can and part time when life presents temporary obstacles,” he says.
The report’s findings are significant both in terms of policy decisions that mandate 15 credits per semester and in terms of financial aid, which is currently structured for semesters or full-time students.
“We need to make sure our financial aid policies allow for students to take three to four years for an associate degree and to go to school year-round, even during the summer,” says Jarrat.
Today’s shifting economy demands that college attainment is critical not just for graduating high school students but also for those adults in the working world who attended college in the past but never finished.
“This study is reminding institutions, policymakers and others that there are these students who are not the traditional students,” says Jarrat. “The overriding goal was to start putting in place the data to make informed decisions. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
How is your community college supporting its nontraditional students? Tell us in the Comments.