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Report: Focus on Part-Time Students to Close Achievement Gaps

DALLAS — A new report this week from the Education Advisory Board (EAB) encourages community colleges to increase support for part-time students in order to achieve equity and reduce the nearly 20-percentage-point achievement gap between White and minority students.

In “Reframing the Question of Equity,” EAB researchers found that part-time students – who are more likely to be Hispanic or Black – tend to have lower completion rates than their full-time and White peers. Even if they are part-time for only a semester, Hispanic and Black part-time students experience a decline in their degree-completion rates by 39 and 31 percent, respectively, compared to a decline of 29 percent for White part-time students.

The report was released during the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Christina HubbardChristina Hubbard

“Underrepresented minority students are more likely to be first-generation college students and face challenges that prevent them from attending full-time: financial pressures, family demands or the lack of a support system,” said Christina Hubbard, director of strategic research at EAB. “Going to school part-time exacerbates those challenges – and makes it more difficult for schools to help students overcome them.”

EAB’s report sheds insight on the growing faction of underrepresented minorities, first-generation and lower-income students who are part-time and make up the majority of today’s community college population. Even as college access improves, achievement gaps persist for these groups, according to the report.

“Despite investments in student success,” the report read, “overall community college graduation rates have remained stubbornly flat. In addition, outcomes among historically underrepresented students do not reflect the gains made in college access.”

The researchers’ data indicates that 83 percent of community college students will enroll part-time or leave school at least once before returning to graduate. Forty-seven percent of part-time students believe they will graduate within two years, but only 8 percent of students complete their degrees in four years.

Additional insights reveal that low-income, first-generation students are four times as likely to drop out after their first year compared to more advantaged peers.

The report added that existing student success initiatives that largely target full-time students will not close achievement gaps as effectively as specific measures that accommodate the needs of part-time students.

“There’s a huge opportunity here to advance equity in education if we can provide better support to part-time students,” Hubbard said. “And while many of the advances in community college student success have been focused on full-time students, we see some progressive institutions molding those practices to serve the unique needs of part-timers.”

Institutions can support part-time students by streamlining the onboarding process between application and enrollment; providing students with individualized guidance throughout their matriculation; adapting academic planning tools to student needs; and offering traditional student experiences in nontraditional ways, the report suggested.

“Many students lose momentum as they face unexplained delays, generic information, confusing terminology and transfers between college departments,” the report said, noting that community colleges lose more than half of applicants before the first day of class.

Further, institutions often provide their academic plans in a term-by-term format designed for full-time students. This can make it challenging for part-time students to identify the correct course sequences or to select courses according to their schedules if they have work or family-related responsibilities, the report said.

Unrealistic expectations about the time it takes to complete a degree can also deter part-time students on their path to degree completion, but meeting with an adviser and having the appropriate, personalized information earlier can help students achieve success.

“Students need access to tools that reflect their competing priorities and part-time enrollment, allowing them to develop a right-fit academic plan that integrates critical information about academic requirements, requisite courses and time to degree,” the report said.

EAB recommended that technology play a role in elevating the experiences of part-time students who may not spend a great deal of time on campus. Targeted outreach to part-time students using technology “provides an avenue for bringing the campus to the palms of students’ hands, providing a network of support to help students solve and seek help,” the report suggested.

Data projections on how the achievement gap would change if underrepresented groups graduated at similar rates of White peers showed that the achievement gap would narrow by five points for full-time Black students and one point for full-time Hispanic students if the two groups graduated at the same rate as full-time White students.

However, EAB researchers forecasted that focusing on part-time groups specifically had better outcomes for institutions in closing achievement gaps.

“If we focus on closing the achievement gap among part-time student populations, the gap between Black and White students would close by 13 points – or 62 percent – and the gap between Hispanic and White students would improve by 7 points – or 58 percent,” the report said.

Promoting success for part-time students by providing services that are “agile, student-centric and forward-looking” will also help community colleges in the face of declining adult enrollment and “stagnating” high school graduation rates over the last few years.

“Community college students of tomorrow will be increasingly diverse … they will need accessible support in order to successfully achieve their goals,” EAB’s report said. “Targeting resources to part-time students has never been more important to ensuring our colleges’ sustainability.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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