2 Kinds of Part-Time Students

New analysis suggests that a significant subset of them are quite similar to full-time students.
June 28, 2007

A report released Wednesday by the U.S. Education Department provides a detailed look at the characteristics of part-time college students -- and most of the results won't surprise those who work with these students. Compared to full-time students, part timers are more likely to be older, female, Hispanic, financially independent of their parents, first-generation college students, and to lag in graduation and retention rates.

But if those findings won't shock anyone, the department statistics also presented data that may challenge assumptions about part-time students.

About 25 percent of part-time students can be identified as those who "looked like typical full-time students" -- and by looked like, the report was talking about demographics, not appearance. The characteristics: they are 23 or younger, they are financially dependent on their parents and receive parental help with college costs, and they received regular high school diplomas. Compared to other part-time students, this group is more likely to be white, to come from wealthy families, and to expect to eventually earn an advanced degree. Compared to full-time students, this group is more likely to be Hispanic, less likely to be black, and more likely to come from families with college degrees.

In terms of enrollment patterns, part-time students are much more likely than full-time students to attend community colleges -- and to not ever receive a degree. Those in the "looked like full-time student" category are in the middle in terms of where they enroll.

Student Enrollment Breakdown, 2003-4

Type of Student Public 4-Year Private 4-Year Public 2-year More than 1 institution Other
Full timers 37.3% 18.8% 25.2% 6.4% 12.4%
Part timers who look like fullvtimers 33.7% 8.5% 44.0% 11.4% 2.4%
Other part timers 19.6% 8.4% 58.3% 7.6% 6.2%

The data in the report also show that students who are part timers with full-time characteristics are significantly more likely than other part timers to earn a degree. The following table is based on highest degree earned through 2001 by students who started their postsecondary programs in 1995-6.

Degree Attainment by Enrollment Status

Enrollment Status Earned Bachelor's Degree Earned Associate Degree Earned Certificate No Degree or Cerificate
Exclusively full time 43.7% 8.3% 12.4% 35.6%
Part-timer who look like full-timers 25.0% 13.6% 6.8% 54.6%
Other part-timers 6.9% 9.7% 16.9% 66.5%

Several experts said that the idea of looking at part-time students not as a single group, but as at least two defined subgroups, made sense and could have important policy implications.

Clifford Adelman, a longtime Education Department researcher who is now a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (and who reviewed an early version of the report while in his previous job), said that the data show the importance of "recognizing all the differences" among groups. Some analysts assume that part-time enrollment is somehow a problem, but Adelman said it was important to remember that many people are making rational decisions based on their circumstances.

For plenty of traditional age undergraduates, for some combination of educational or personal reasons, taking 15 credits a semester isn't going to work, Adelman said. "Some of these students are being realistic," and it shouldn't bother people if they take longer to graduate. "I'm not worried about the way students move through higher education, but that they are getting through."

Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, which studies and promotes the interest of Latino college students, said she was not surprised by the categorization of the subgroup of part-time students or the larger share of Latino students in that group.

Many Latino students are trying to replicate what they did in high school, she said, meaning that they will take courses, hold down a job, and live with their families. These students, many of whom could be admitted to colleges elsewhere, want to juggle a range of responsibilities and also to keep costs down, she said.

Santiago said that these data point to the importance of working on issues related to college completion, since many of those part-time students may attend community college, but not earn a bachelor's degree. For example, she said that students may equate sticker price with actual price. "We have not been as good as we should be in using financial aid that is available," Santiago said.

The new analysis should be helpful, Santiago said, even if some trends should be change. "When we think about Latino students going to college, we need to get them where they are, but we need to think about policies to get them where they want to be."


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