Part-time College: a Slow Path to Success

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The first thing that came to mind while listening to a recent webcast about part-time students was, Wow, people like me who attended four-year colleges are clueless about how hard it is to be a part-time student!

My second thought was better summed up by one of the webcast’s panelists. Solving part-time students’ immense financial and logistical challenges “is really about economic and social mobility for a large group of citizens in our communities,” said Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream, a non-profit network of community colleges that promotes students’ success.

Four in 10 U.S. college students are part-time and about four in 10 part-time students drop out very early in their education, according to the Center for American Progress, which hosted the discussion and produced the video above.

The panelists – and two former part-time students who shared their experiences – described the high obstacles part-time students overcome to receive a two-year degree, or to move on to further educational programs.   To succeed, these students need financial support and an understanding of their particular needs:

  • Work: There is no “typical” part-time student, but one thing ties them together: they must work. Some even juggle two part-time jobs. Work extends, by years, the time required to complete a two-year or bachelor’s degree. To accommodate working students’ crazy schedules, some community colleges – perhaps not enough – go to extraordinary lengths, like scheduling midnight classes.  “Part-time students need classes at night and on weekends. It’s very important,” said Johari Barnes, director of academic support at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC).
  • Day care: CCBC student Missy Antonio, featured in the video, is not unlike many part-time students. The 37-year-old is completing prerequisites to get into nursing school at CCBC and would like to go full-time. But attending school is difficult while caring for a daughter in kindergarten and a 2-year-old son, because her husband works a lot, and they can’t afford the $165 per week for full-time day care on top of tuition. She schedules her courses around when her parents can babysit. Some groups of students have created support networks to provide back-up day care for fellow students in a bind. The day care problem is so pervasive in community colleges that some institutions provide the service.But part-time students’ children are also their motivation to pursue an education, even if it takes years.  Panelist Juan Selgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, recalled seeing one student being dropped off for class by her husband, with three children in the car. “She’s saying goodbye to them, and she’s going to do this for three or four or five or six years,” he said.
  • Transportation: Literally getting to class is difficult for students who don’t have the luxury of living in a dorm or an apartment near campus, as four-year students often do.  Community college students often transfer to two or three city buses to get to class.  In rural areas, a student’s car breaking down can be the trigger for dropping out, said Neal Holly, assistant director of workforce development for the non-profit Education Commission of the States. Financial aid staff, he said, must address these unorthodox issues to help part-time students succeed. “Institutions need to be able to put their hands on dollars to help students fix that car,” he said. Selgado said City Colleges of Chicago does: it has a fund for transportation and emergencies.
  • Remedial education. Community college students often have unique educational challenges. For example, if a program requires calculus, they might need the algebra instruction that they missed in high school. “The journey – it’s painful,” Selgado said. “That’s something we absolutely need to get better at at our institutions.” Non-credit prerequisites are another factor that can add years – and expense – to completing school. But it can be done: he said he has seen students with a 6th or 7th grade level of literacy complete a licensed practical nursing program in three or four years.
  • Money issues. Part-time students with limited incomes know where every penny goes, panelists said. Tuition is one barrier to attending school – but so are textbooks.  Stout described a student who calculated that her books for a full course load would cost $1,890 – nearly as much as her tuition.  To solve this problem, the student was forced to select courses that did not require textbooks.

Much about a college education is about money. Two major sources of money – state funding and philanthropy – traditionally have been more likely to be funneled to four-year institutions, the panelists said.

“Most of our legislators went to four-year colleges,” Johari said. “That’s what they know.”

Indeed, many of us do not really know.

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