In recent years, the profile of the traditional college student has changed.
According to a Higher Learning Advocates policy brief, in the fall of 2017, 24% of students were parents, 37% were older than 25 and 49% were financially independent. Close to 40% of students were part-time.
The brief, “Policies Impacting Today’s Part-Time Students: Boosting College Access and Completion for All,” provides recommendations to institutions in order to improve the success rate for part-time students.
Emily Bouck West, deputy executive director at Higher Learning Advocates, said she hopes that the brief allows policymakers and institutions to think more intentionally about the needs of part-time students.
“The current higher education system is really designed for a certain type of student — full-time students who pursue higher education right after high school,” she added. “And as today’s students continue to become more diverse, institutions should consider how they can ensure all types of students have every opportunity to succeed.”
For full-time students, 66% are likely to complete a credential within eight years at a public four-year institution, compared to only 42% of part-time students, according to the report.
Since 81% of part-time students are employed and 46% work 35 or more hours per week, busy schedules often provide restrictions. For example, many student support services such as tutoring, mentoring or counseling are only offered during the day. Therefore, part-time students miss opportunities to gain information about academic resources or financial aid packages.
“Today’s students need higher education to fit into their already very busy lives,” said Julie Peller, executive director at Higher Learning Advocates. “Attending classes part-time alongside work or family responsibilities allows them to pursue their goals and I think we will continue to see even more students enroll part-time in the future.”
To provide all students access to services on campus, the brief recommended that institutions or policymakers fund programs that use technology as an outside resource. According to the report, 97% of students said technology that supports them outside of the classroom is as important as the technology used inside the classroom and as a learning tool.
Another variable that part-time students face is affordability, as 48% receive some form of federal student aid. The average amount of federal grant aid is $3,860 a year for a part-time student, while federal student loans averaged around $6,700 a year for a part-time student, the report said.
In order to improve accessibility, the brief recommended that fees be decreased for part-time students who choose not to use certain services and resources, which would reduce their total cost of attendance.
Between the academic years 2000-01 and 2016-17, student fees increased by 106.7% at four-year public institutions of higher education, according to the policy brief.
Since part-time students are more likely to enroll in certification and associate degree programs, the brief suggested the federal Pell Grants should include more short-term programs in order to allow students to afford skills training and credentials needed for the current job market.
Another recommendation was to improve the current federal postsecondary and workforce data systems.
The College Scorecard and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems did not start including data on part-time students until 2017. However, the data has yet to be broken down by race, ethnicity or gender and lacks outcome measures data from non-degree-granting institutions. An improved data system can allow part-time students to make decisions about which institution would provide the best return on investment, the report said.
Another suggestion was to expand innovative postsecondary delivery models such as competency-based education (CBE), prior-learning assessments and military credentials.
CBE is a model that focuses on learning outcomes instead of time spent in a classroom. This provides more of a flexible option for part-time students. On the other hand, prior-learning assessments allow individuals to demonstrate their knowledge through tests. Since these programs are often not covered by federal financial aid, the report urged policymakers to make it more easily accessible.
Lastly, students in the military can use their experiences to gain certifications. Each individual in the military receives a“DD214” form to highlight their activity and skills learned while serving. However, each institution is responsible for determining the credits that will be ultimately be transferred. The report recommended that each institution recognize all coursework, credentials or experiences earned in the military.
“Many of today’s students are enrolled part-time but the current higher education system is not necessarily designed for these students to succeed,” said Bouck West. “Their needs are often very different than [that of] full-time students. We hoped to shed some light on the ways policies and institutions can better support part-time students specifically, so they are able to succeed in higher education and in their careers.”
Sarah Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.