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As more and more students enroll part time, colleges have considered whether they are providing appropriate academic support for them.

A study being released today suggests that they may not be providing enough faculty interaction. And more surprisingly, the study finds that as part-time enrollments go up, the faculty interaction of full-time students with professors goes down. The authors of the study -- conducted by Indiana University scholars Thomas F. Nelson Laird and Ty M. Cruce, using a national sample -- hope it will set off discussion on how institutions change when they enroll more part-timers.

The research will be presented today at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, in Chicago.

For the study, the researchers analyzed responses to questions on the National Survey of Student Engagement that dealt with faculty interaction. The questions focused on behaviors such as discussing grades or assignments with an instructor, talking about career plans with a faculty member, discussing ideas with faculty members outside of class time, and working with faculty members on projects that are not related to specific class assignments. Numerous studies have found that students who interact with faculty members in these ways are more likely to report better educational experiences over all. (The project examined data from 224 public, four-year colleges and universities in the United States, with a broad range of admissions competitiveness and size.)

Nelson Laird, one of the study's authors, said there was little surprise that part-time students have less faculty engagement than their full-time counterparts. But he said that there multiple hypotheses going in on what would be found at institutions with many part-time students. One theory was that full-time students at these institutions might get more faculty interaction because the part-timers aren't around to compete for professors' time.

But the opposite was the case. As the percentage of part-time enrollment went up, the reported levels of faculty interaction of full-time students went down.

Nelson Laird said that the findings are important on multiple levels. "If we agree as a field that a key to increasing access is by getting more people to enroll in higher education as part-timers, then we have to be very mindful of trying to break down some of the barriers that exist to engagement," he said. In fact, he said that one of the most encouraging findings was that when part-time students receive a high degree of faculty interaction, they show the same educational gains as full-timers do.

Evidence suggests that "the classroom is key" to not only teaching material, but to creating relationships that allow for more faculty-student interaction, Nelson Laird said. In other words, a professor teaching traditional students at a residential college can fall back on running into students walking across the quad. At an institution with many part-time students, those students are at work or taking care of kids.

The evidence on full-time students should be of great concern, Nelson Laird. One theory -- which he wants to do more research to study -- is that states rely on part-time faculty members at institutions with many part-time students. If those part-timers aren't paid for office hours or to be around, they aren't going to have the same interaction levels, so states create two tiered systems, and these institutions aren't providing the necessary level of engagement at institutions with many part-time students.

If institutions with high percentages of part-time students and faculty members -- many of which are institutions serving a large proportion of minority or low-income students -- have low levels of faculty-student interaction, Nelson Laird asked what that says about higher education. "What does it say about what a campus does if all of your students and faculty are only coming to campus two hours a day? If everyone is doing that, who is maintaining the culture of an institution?"


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