As former secretary of education John King once said, “The most expensive degree remains the one you don’t get.”
When students start but do not finish a degree, they lose out on more than just the extra income they could have earned with an associate’s, bachelor’s, or certificate. They also lose money studying instead of working, and may be on the hook for any student loans they may have incurred while in school.
Despite the obvious pitfalls of non-completion, graduation rates remain low at community colleges, where approximately one-third of students ever earn a degree or certificate. Attending even just one semester of community college full-time, however, gives students a better chance of completing college, according to a report out on Wednesday.
The Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) released a report looking at the graduation and completion rates of full-time versus part-time students which confirmed that full-time students have a demonstrable “edge” in terms of the chances of graduating compared to their part-time peers.
Although the benefits of attending full- versus part-time community college have already been demonstrated in numerous reports, CCCSE’s report provides a fresh look at the issue and new insights on how colleges can help more students succeed.
“It is not terribly surprising that attending full-time correlates with greater engagement, but what is surprising is that students who were full-time in the first semester had a much greater chance of persisting,” said Dr. Evelyn Waiwaiole, CCCSE director.
Of the students who attended full-time in their first semester of college, 77 percent persisted from fall to spring, compared to 64 percent of their part-time peers. In the end, 38 percent of students who attended full-time in their first semester graduated, compared to 31 percent of students who did not.
Most community college students attend part-time, so for colleges to see their graduation numbers improve, the trick will be to find a way to successfully engage with those students and ideally, help them find a way to attend full-time for even one semester.
Student engagement starts in the classroom, Waiwaiole said, since for some it may be their one connection to campus. “Some students come to campus by metro or car, go to class, and then get back on the metro or in their car and leave,” she commented.
Beyond the classroom, engagement strategies become a more complicated question of resources and advising systems. Some schools are working to shift from what Waiwaiole refers to as a transactional relationship, with students meeting formally with an advisor in an office, to a relational advising structure, creating café-style student centers on campus or offering advising services in more casual setting. By offering advising services in spaces that are attractive to students anyway, more students are likely to avail themselves of those supports, Waiwaiole said.
Students too are calling on institutions to provide better guidance and advising. The CCCSE report asked part-time students for feedback on how they think their colleges could help them succeed, and their replies were illuminating.
“I think having more counselors,” said one student. “We have one for the whole campus.”
Others asked for more time with advisors, who could sit down with them and really map out their plan of attack. “I [wish] someone would’ve told me, ‘You’re going to be here for three years if you go at this rate,’” one student said.
Another student commented, “I think a big part would also be the advisors, possibly, having longer hours, longer times where you can meet with them. A normal meet would be 15 minutes. That’s barely enough time for them to get your logged into the computer.”
More colleges are working to develop guided pathways, the next wave in community colleges’ efforts to improve overall graduation numbers. California, for instance, announced on Tuesday that twenty colleges will participate in the California Guided Pathways Projects, an initiative modeled after the American Association of Community Colleges’ Pathways Project.
“As more and more colleges are thinking about guided pathways, I would say that they’re beginning to think less about how to tinker around the edges and more about how to redesign the college experience, everything from entering to the actual experience to the exit,” Waiwaiole said.
Tom Sugar, president of Complete College America, said on Tuesday that “making full-time attendance the norm and not the exception” would improve overall graduation rates, noting that it has been demonstrably proven that students who take at least 30 credits a year have higher retention and graduation rates. CCA is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit founded in 2010 that is dedicated to improving college graduation outcomes at the state level.
However, the onus of fixing graduation numbers should not fall solely to students, Sugar said. Colleges also have a responsibility for improving student success.
“But expecting more from students isn’t even half of what’s necessary: we must also expect more from colleges and universities,” he said. “Structural changes, including streamlining remediation, fixing broken mathematic, and reengineering schedules to help balance work and school, are proven to boost student success.”
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].