Time for a Paradigm Shift on Higher Education Equity
According to Reframing the Question of Equity, we may be missing an opportunity to advance equity in higher education if we do not begin to pay attention to the growing population of part-time students, many of whom attend community colleges.
Many higher education organizations have promoted the concept that full-time attendance at a university or college increases the rates of completion and graduation. The Even One Semester, Full-Time Enrollment and Student Success (PDF) report, from the Center for Community College Student Engagement, reported that full-time students have better overall outcomes, while Complete College America has made a very strong case for encouraging students to enroll in 15 credit hours per semester. Research has shown that doing so has significant benefits including better academic performance, higher retention rates and an increase in completion.
However, these reports often fail to look at the whole picture. For underrepresented minority, low-income and first-generation students, the struggle to balance the obligations of work, family and education creates barriers that disallow them to consider full-time college enrollment. Most student success initiatives only focus on full-time students even though, in community colleges, more than 60% of the enrolled students attend part-time and more than 80% will stop out at least once during their enrollment. Additionally, the 2018 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Community College Presidents reported that the majority of two-year-college leaders claimed to be experiencing declining enrollment at their colleges. The presidents indicated that their colleges are adding new programs, as well as making it easier for students to transfer to four-year institutions. These steps are important because there is still an antiquated perspective, fueled by the labor market, that an associate degree is less desirable than a baccalaureate degree. In fact, employers are more concerned with the real-world skills that graduates have such as critical thinking, decision making and oral and written communication.
Perhaps the solution to the issue is to create support strategies aimed at part-time students. At enrollment, guide students towards realistic expectations of the length of time it will take to graduate. Include a review of students’ prior learning that can be assessed for college-level learning including employment, military service, non-credit training programs or licensures and certifications awarded from training programs offered outside of traditional academic programs. Offer tutoring, mentoring and advising at hours when part-time, working adults can access them. Design orientation programs that speak directly to part-time non-traditional students, allowing them to access information in a structured way that walks them through what can often be a daunting process, especially for many first-generation and returning adult learners. Provide individualized education plans that sequence the courses needed to complete their program, while also recognizing that other obligations may cause them not to be able to attend semester over semester.
If we wish to improve achievement rates for all students, we need to change our perspective about how we measure student success. Rather than using the single lens of a traditional full-time student, we need to employ multiple views of how to assist students from diverse backgrounds with the means to achieve their educational goals.
CAEL provides workshops and trainings that support equity, offer in-depth training around prior learning assessment, provide insights into advising for adult students and offers research into the methods that increase persistence and graduation with prior learning assessment.