Study: Many College Students are Part-Timers, Less Likely to Graduate

A new report finds that, barring serious reforms, today's young people will be the first generation in American history to be less educated than their predecessors.

By Jorge Rivas Sep 28, 2011

Will today’s generation of young people be the first in history to be less educated than their parents? New findings from a study conducted by Complete College America, a non-profit founded two years ago with financing from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, suggests that may be the case. 

The report "Time is the Enemy" found a significant portion of the nation’s college students  are going to school part time.* The trouble is that part time students have lower graduation rates than full-time students. Seventy-five percent of today’s students are juggling some combination of family, jobs, and school while commuting to class. Even when given twice as long to complete certificates and degrees, no more than a quarter of part time students ever make it to graduation day.

The study found that even though there are more poor students and students of color entering college, "too few end up with certificates," the authors wrote.

The report sites several obstacles that keep students from graduating. One of the main concerns is that students spend too much time taking remedial classes, and most end up "trapped in broken remedial approaches that don’t help," according to the report.

In California, for example, the average Cal State student is taking anywhere between 5.2 to 5.7 years to graduate with a degree that should take only four years to complete. Utah has some of the longest degree completion times, with full-time students graduating in an average of 6.7 years while part-time students take close to eight years to finish school. And this is if students make it to graduation.

In Texas, out of every 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 79 started at a community college, and only 2 of them earned a two-year degree on time; even after four years, only 7 of them graduated. Of the 21 of those 100 who enrolled at a four-year college, 5 graduated on time; after eight years, only 13 had earned a degree.

The data available in the report only takes into account 33 states that opted to share enrollment records. These numbers weren’t available before this report was published because the Federal Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) doesn’t track what happens to part-time students, who make up about 40 percent of all students, nor does it count the success of transfer, low-income, or remedial students.

The report makes several recommendations for states to improve graduation rates for today’s students:

Use block schedules, with fixed and predictable classroom meeting times, so that part-time students who are juggling jobs, families, and school can know with certainty when they can go to work each day.

Allow students to proceed toward degrees or certificates at a faster pace, with shorter academic terms, less time off between terms, and year-round scheduling.

Reduce the amount of time students must be in class by using online technology and allowing students to move on once they’ve demonstrated competency.

Embed remediation into the regular college curriculum so students don’t waste time before they start earning credits.

The report highlights the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) at The City University of New York that helps students complete associate degrees more quickly than average programs. By using block scheduling, student cohorts by major, and other support, students effectively balance jobs and school. ASAP students have three times the graduation rate of their peers who do not participate in the program.

* This piece has been updated since publication.