Image of a chalkboard with a drawing of a student carrying books up stairs on which words are written like start, fair, good

Understanding Part-Time Student Success

Last week, InsideHigherEd published an OpEd of predictions for what the 2020s have in store for higher education (Will Higher Education Roar in the 2020s by John Katzman). In his opinion piece, Mr. Katzman makes a series of interesting observations and predictions. At the IEHE, we’re particularly interested in the very first point he makes regarding the rise of the “Nontraditional Learner”:

“Depending on how you define the term, close to 75 percent of today’s undergraduate students are ‘nontraditional’ learners. This could mean they hold a full-time job while enrolled, they are financially independent from their parents or they are a primary caregiver themselves. Perhaps they have a GED rather than a traditional high school diploma. Further, 37 percent of undergraduates are now part-time. It’s time for us to let go of our outdated understanding of bachelor’s students and restructure the educational experience around their new reality.”

Woman at lap top surrounded by drawings of other work that needs to be done. Often part-time student success is more challenging because of competing priorities.

Are Part-time Students Succeeding?

At the IEHE, we’ve had our eye on this rise in nontraditional students. We’ve noticed that the data analytics and metrics aren’t keeping pace with the growth. So, we’ve been trying to figure out how we can partner with colleges and universities to make up some of this lost ground. And we’ve come up with a few ideas, including our RealityCheck tools.

For example, until recently, the only student success indicator for part-time students in IPEDS was retention rates. And this rate is limited to first-time students; that is, those students entering the institution with no prior college experience. The introduction of IPEDS Outcomes Measures now has institutions tracking part-time students’ graduation rates, both those who are first-time students and those who have transferred-in to the institution. But given the newness of the measure and the (expected) lower completion rates compared to their full-time counterparts, the metric isn’t especially useful on its own.

How to Measure the Success of Part-Time Students

It is fantastic that there are finally national data collected on all part-time undergraduate students. However, little is known about part-time students, especially in comparison to full-time. For example, what is a good 8 year completion rate for part-time students? No one knows because it hasn’t been researched sufficiently (yet!).

Clearly, part-time rates should NOT be compared to full-time rates. Attending part-time is generally out of necessity (working full-time, care-giver full-time, etc.). Generally, if one can attend full-time, they do. Part-time attendance is rarely a preference.

So – what are we left with if we shouldn’t compare part-time and full-time completion rates? Seems like a fine time time to explore new metrics!

Chalkboard drawing with student holding books about to climb stairs to success. Symbolizing the climb to part-time student success.

RealityCheck Provides Context for Understanding Part-Time Student Success

RealityCheck is the only metric available that provides context for part-time graduation rates – for both first-time and transfer-in students. Rather than consider the rates in a vacuum—or worse, compare them to full-time completion rates—the RealityCheck Rate analysis determines what these student success rates should have been. Thus, when the RealityCheck Rate is compared to the reported graduation rate, say for First-time, Part-time students, we get a sense of whether or not the student group is over or under performing.  

This context is important for so many reasons. It helps us identify whether or not we are meeting student success expectations for part-time students. Additionally, using data analytics such as RealityCheck Rates, allows for comparison across the institution’s student groups. When explored in the context of the success of other student groups at the institution, as well as institutional programming and initiatives, we can begin to identify programs and services that might encourage more Part-time, students to persist to graduation, thereby closing the much-needed skills gap for the workforce.