The Full-Time Advantage

Study on community college students' engagement suggests difficulties for the growing part-time population.
November 27, 2006

A new report on community college student engagement suggests that the academic experience of full-time students is substantially more interactive than that of their part-time peers and also documents a disparity between the proportion of students who value academic advising and those who obtain it.

Given research finding that active levels of student engagement -- with faculty members, peers and the subject matter -- are correlated with student success, the findings shed light on challenges facing community colleges as they reach out to part-timers, who make up 61 percent of students at two-year institutions.

“No one is surprised to hear that two-thirds of community college students are part-time or that an increasing percentage of faculty are part-time,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. “But it’s not enough to know it. We have to do something about it.”

In an analysis of 249,548 students from 447 community colleges in 46 states, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that part-time students are less likely than full-time students to report that they often or very often talk about career plans with an instructor or advisor (19 percent of part-time students versus 30 percent of full-time students) or discuss grades or assignments with an instructor (40 percent of part-time students versus 51 percent of full-time students). The gap persists in the virtual world: 34 percent of part-time students, compared to 47 percent of full-time students, report that they often or very often use e-mail to correspond with an instructor.

Students consistently rate academic advising as the most important support service that their college offers. But while 89 percent of respondents call academic advising “somewhat or very important,” just 55 percent of those surveyed report using the service “sometimes or often.” Not surprisingly, full-time students are more likely to partake of advising services: 16 percent of full-time students reported receiving no advising services, about half the percentage of part-time students (29 percent) who said the same.

The disparity in the number of students who value advising versus those who obtain it is the result of a number of reasons, McClenney said, including the impact of state budget cuts on support services and the fact that part-time instructors typically aren’t compensated for time spent advising: 10 percent of full-time faculty report spending zero hours per week on advising, versus 40 percent of part-timers. And, of course, there’s the fact that community college students, with their busy lives – 57 percent work more than 20 hours per week, 32 percent have children living with them and their average age is 29 – are simply more difficult to reach.

“The reality is that community college students come to class and then they’re gone,” said McClenney. “The question is how to bring advising into the classroom and not expect that students are going to go out of their way to make an advising appointment at the convenience of the college.”

“We talk a lot about advising as teaching, teaching as advising,” said Kathy Stockwell, an associate dean at Fox Valley Technical College, in Wisconsin, and the former chair of the Faculty Advising Commission for the National Academic Advising Association

While community colleges, which are home to about half of the nation’s undergraduates, face particular challenges with advising due to the large numbers of part-time students and instructors alike, they also benefit from their vocational bent -- and the fact that students tend to cluster in a core set of classes based on career aspirations, Stockwell said. “Everyone in a class may want to be a nurse or a dental hygienist. You have a captive audience, you can talk about goals, next steps, how to move forward from here.”

A recurring theme in the report is the prominence of the classroom in the community college experience. Another finding shows that although about 45 percent of students have often or very often worked on projects with other students during class, just 21 percent can say the same for their work outside of the classroom.

At Santa Fe Community College, in Florida, an institution highlighted in the report, administrators have responded in part by attempting to strengthen the bonds of students within the classroom. Groups of Santa Fe students enroll together in several courses united around a common theme through the college’s three-year-old learning communities initiative, said David Yonutas, coordinator of educational technologies at Santa Fe. “You end up getting this accountability network going where students feel accountable to everyone else in a class.”

Other key findings in the 2006 CCSSE:

  • 64 percent of students report that they have asked questions in class or contributed to class discussions either often or very often.
  • 15 percent of students report having often or very often discussed ideas from their readings or classes with instructors outside of class, and 48 percent have never engaged with faculty in that way.
  • 38 percent of full-time students spend five or fewer hours for week preparing for class. Meanwhile, 15 percent of full-time female students, and 9 percent of full-time male students, spend 21 or more hours preparing for class in an average week.
  • Students report that their coursework requires rote memorization and more complex analysis in about equal measure.
  • Almost a third of full-time students report that they wrote four or fewer papers or reports of any length during the academic year.
  • 43 percent of students name faculty members as their best source for advising.

This year’s report focuses on CCSSE’s role within a growing accountability movement in higher education. CCSSE, unlike its peer study for the four-year institutions, the National Survey of Student Engagement, requires colleges to sign on to the public release of institution-specific data as a condition for participation ( available online).

“That decision to be public and transparent was really based on the conviction of presidents on our board that public accountability is a good thing if you’re being held accountable on the right things,” said McClenney.

“CCSSE is about effective educational practice and we think that’s appropriate.”


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