Image reads - Nearly 2 million undergraduate students attend college part-time at four year institutions. Focus on student success.

Part-Time Students at Four Year Colleges

Image reads - Nearly 2 million undergraduate students attend college part-time at four year institutions.Compared to full-time students, higher education professionals know very little about part-time students. And we know even less about part-time students at four-year colleges and universities. The term “part-time students” usually brings to mind  community colleges. But – there are over 2 million part-time students at four year colleges pursuing their undergraduate degree. That’s right – we’re not just talking about part-time graduate students. In this article, we focus on student success of part-time students at four year institutions and the anticipated increase in this population.

Did you know that there are already nearly two million part-time undergraduate students at four-year institutions? This isn’t a small number. And it is expected to grow as part of the “Great Reset.” However, part-time students have multiple education options. Many of them are outside of colleges and universities.

Despite this 2 million+ number, one rarely hears about a focus on increasing part-time student completion rates. In large part, this is due to the very limited information collected on part-time student completion until recently with the IPEDS Outcome Measures (OM) Survey. [If you don’t know about IPEDS-OM or what to do with IPEDS-OM data, check out some of our recent articles.]

Part-Time Students and the Great Reset

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt impacted every industry and organization throughout the country. Numerous articles, LinkedIn posts, and tweets note that COVID-19 has changed our lives forever. Rather than calling this period the “Great Depression” or “Great Recession,” some have called it the “Great Reset.”

In other recessions, enrollment in higher education goes up as unemployment increases. It makes sense – right? Someone can’t get a job, they go back to college to finish that degree, earn a new degree, or learn new skills. As that student matriculates over time, more jobs become available. And by the time the student earns the degree or acquires new skills, they are more likely to secure a job. The student brings more knowledge and experience, and everyone isn’t searching for a job at the same time.

A Different Kind of Recession

But analysts have said the Great Reset will be like no other recession before. So, what does that mean for higher education? How will it be different? For one, we are likely going to see more part-time enrollments. Why?

  • Job seekers likely will not pass up an opportunity for employment, even if it is part time. One never knows if another job will come around again soon. And, attending college part-time while employed is manageable for many. So, having a job and enhancing skills at the same time is an option.
  • Before the global pandemic hit, a 2017 Forbes article noted that the majority of U.S. workers will be freelancing by 2027. As employers look to limit costs, hiring freelancers can be appealing. Additionally, employees do not feel the same sense of job security with a W-2 employment, as many were/will be quickly laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis. Freelancing allows for some income, rather than no income.
  • There are many education options for part-time students. Colleges and universities are no longer the only place to obtain quality academic content. There are advanced, specialized, and sophisticated companies offering online learning (non-accredited) at low prices (e.g., $49 per month for all you can learn). Thus making the count of two million part-time students noted earlier even larger.

Part-Time Student Success and Completion Rates

With the population of part-time students at four-year institutions growing and at online learning organizations, we need to learn more about how to improve the part-time student learning experience. How do we better prepare part-time learners to get needed skills and return to the workforce?

National Student Clearinghouse completed a report in May 2020 showing less than 30% of part-time students who never attended college before graduated with a degree within 6 years. Not surprisingly, full-time students finish at higher rates than part-time students when the metric is time (e.g., 6 years). Of course, part-time students have lower completion rates – they aren’t moving through with the same intensity as their full-time counterparts. This is largely because they are doing more than learning — such as working, parenting, or being caregivers to other family members.

Other higher education advocacy groups also recommend learning more about part-time students. In Hidden in Plain Sight: Understanding Part-Time College Students in America, the Center for American Progress notes that successful strategies designed intentionally for part-time learners can be hard to find. And they suggest that more research is needed around four specific issues:

  • How does part-time student completion vary by college?
  • Is part-time attendance itself the problem or is it a symptom of other obstacles?
  • When is it beneficial to push part-time students to take more credits and when is it not?
  • How do decisions about work hours affect part-time attendance?

IEHE’s Part-Time Student Research Projects

Given the anticipated enrollment increase in part-time students, and the relative lack of information about them, IEHE is focusing on learning as much as possible about this population.

As part of the effort, IEHE is:

  • Focusing in on institutions with over-performing RealityCheck Rates for part-time students.
  • Reviewing institutional websites to identify exceptional part-time student supports offered at these over-achieving institutions.
  • Reaching out to higher education leaders at those institutions to learn more.

We want to know and help inform other higher education professionals about:

  • The best-practices for part-time students at four-year institutions
  • How to determine reasonable part-time completion rates

If you aren’t familiar with RealityCheck yet. No worries. We offer a brief description, links to more details, and interpretative examples. In short, many institutions have out-grown or never were a fan of traditional graduation rates for first-time full-time students. Those rates were never designed to assess all institutions. And they’re particularly bad at assessing success for institutions which have large part-time and transfer-in populations. If that sound like your institution, then you may be interested in RealityCheck. It’s a more comprehensive student success metrics to help you better tell your institution’s success story and identify which student groups need more support.

RealityCheck – Over-Achieving Sample

Consider the case of Extraordinary University which reports to IPEDS that its Full-Time, Transfer-In students receiving Pell grants have an eight-year completion rate of 65%. But RealityCheck’s regression analysis predicts that 51.3% of those students would graduate at Extraordinary.

This is 13.7 percentage points better than what would be expected of this group, based on Extraordinary University’s unique student and institutional characteristics. RealityCheck has given the University something to really brag about!

Image of the Extraordinary University RealityCheck Infographic described

RealityCheck – Under-Performing Sample

In contrast, Extraordinary University’s Part-Time, Transfer-In students who are Non-Pell grant recipients have a completion rate of 14%. RealityCheck’s regression analysis predicts that 18.0% of those students should graduate at Extraordinary. Unfortunately, this group is performing -4.0 points below what would be expected, based on Extraordinary University’s unique student and institutional characteristics.

RealityCheck has given the University a group of students that they can focus on and could benefit from additional resources.

Image of the Extraordinary University RealityCheck Infographic described

RealityCheck – Sample Graph

As shown in the sample RealityCheck graph below, results are analyzed and presented in each report by student groupings. The color coding makes it simple for institutions to identify where they are exceeding the expected completion rate (indicated in green) and which student groups are not faring as well (indicated in red). In the example shown below, Extraordinary University’s full-time transfer-in students receiving Pell grants are not faring as well as RealityCheck would predict. However, Non-Pell recipients are graduating at much higher rates than expected (more than 13 percentage points higher). The completion rate for all full-time transfer-in students exceeds the RealityCheck rate as well (by 7.8 points).

Extraordinary University RealityCheck Infographicaph described above

RealityCheck – Benchmarking and Trends

Institutions that wish to compare their completion rates not just with their own expected rates, but with those of their peers can choose an additional Benchmarking Analysis with their RealityCheck Report. Extraordinary’s Benchmarking Analysis is shown below. Extraordinary is exceeding the RealityCheck rate for five of the six student groups. But the comparison group is doing better that Extraordinary on all five.

Extraordinary University Reality Check Infographic described above

Even a trend analysis is available for institutions which purchase RealityCheck for multiple years. As shown in the example below, while the institution’s completion rates for first time full-time students exceeded the Reality-Check rate for all three groups, the year-over-year comparison is negative for two of them. The Non-Pell and All differentials are smaller in 2020 than in 2019. This is a trend the university should focus on as part of its continuous improvement.

Extraordinary University Reality Check Infographic described above


Want to Learn More?

In addition to our national research project on part-time students at four year institutions, you can find out more about RealityCheck by contacting IEHE. Colleges and universities can obtain their own RealityCheck rate results and:

  • Use your RealityCheck Report to understand what you’re getting right, and where you have room for improvement.
  • Focus your institution’s limited resources on students who can benefit most from the support.
  • Show others the evidence that your team is making a difference in student success.
  • Better tell your institution’s student success story.

Learn more and order your RealityCheck results.