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Winter for Higher-Ed
Colleges Shutting Out Part-Time Students
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of advanced degree candidates aren’t 18 year olds fresh from high school. According to a report by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, up to 73 percent of U.S. students enrolled in a degree program are “non-traditional” students who attend school part-time while working or supporting a family. For these students, balancing commitments inside and outside the classroom is increasingly difficult.
In an effort to encourage students to graduate quickly and lower dropout rates, some schools are encouraging the traditional full-time, four-year model, to the detriment of part-time students. An interesting piece in the Atlantic explains how colleges do this: offering fewer classes in the evening, making administrators difficult to reach outside business hours, and, most importantly, restricting much student aid to full-time students. Meanwhile, the requirements for full-time status are in many cases getting stricter, with a number of organizations lobbying to raise full-time enrollment requirements from 12 credits per semester to 15.
This system may encourage more students to opt for full-time study, but it also unduly punishes students who work while enrolled in a degree program.  As David Scobey, Dean of the New School for Public Engagement, told The Atlantic:

Financial aid is set up to favor full-time students, and very few institutions have good services for adult students. There’s a whole host of reasons why completion rates are lower, and this might be the wrong solution. It’s true that students who are going to school part time have proportionally less success in completing degrees. That’s partly because we have done such a terrible job in higher education of understanding the majority of undergraduates who have to work, more than half of whom are enrolled part time.

Instead of solving the issue of college dropout rates by steering students towards full-time study, why not increase the resources and support to part-time students? Different students have different needs and schedules, and colleges should support them all. Colleges shouldn’t make it harder for students to work and acquire additional skills before they graduate.
Overall, we need to be more concerned with what students have learned, not how much time they’ve served in school. By adding more flexibility and instituting a system that measures how much students have learned, not how many credits they’ve taken, students could complete courses at their own pace, or even graduate early and save time and tuition costs. Unfortunately, rather than moving towards flexibility, many schools are doing the opposite.
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  • Andrew Allison

    “Overall, we need to be more concerned with what students have learned, not how much time they’ve served in school.”
    Are you perhaps suggesting a return to the classical model of a final examination which worked so well for a couple of thousand years, instead of simply collecting attendance credits?

  • Greg Olsen

    Having struggled through 2 graduate degrees, MA in Jewish Studies, and an MBA in Finance while holding a full time job and raising 3 children, I can relate to the pressures on the non-traditional student. However, it is right that colleges steer what precious aid there is to full time students who are likely to complete degrees. It is unfortunate for those non-traditional students, but the statistics don’t lie and there is little that universities can do while fulfilling their primary mission to alleviate the difficulties of the non-traditional student: rent or mortgage payments, raising a family, commuting, missing class due to emergencies at work, etc.

    That said, here in my own community and state (Contra Costa County, CA), the community college district does a good job of helping the non-traditional student by making sure that an AA for transfer can be completed with a combination of online, night, and weekend courses, and University of California finally got with the 21st Century and began accepting credit for online courses.

    Non-traditional students also need do their part and be careful consumers of higher education, finding the best bang for the buck and the right fit for completing the degree. It takes a lot of research to find the right school to actually finish and get out with an affordable amount of debt.

  • Eileen McKenna

    Part time evening study IS AMERICA. What percentage of college degrees are awarded to people who first had to pay the rent before even considering higher education? Is there anywhere else in the world where a person can decide at any point in one’s life to pursue advanced studies? Change who they are? Maybe FINALLY contribute to society? What are we doing here? Nothing good.

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