The Issue of Part-Time Community College Students

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

For college students in general, a 2011 survey found that 75% are part-time. Of these, “Even when given twice as long to complete certificates and degrees, no more than a quarter ever make it to graduation day.”1 Another study in 2012, focusing on community college students, found that 59% are part-time. Of these, 42% work more than 30 hours a week, 37% care for dependents 11 or more hours a week, and 40% take evening or weekend classes.2

In comparison to full-time students, part-timers fail at over twice the rate in completing certificate and degree programs. Here’s a breakdown from the 2011 survey:


Considering their numbers and their low completion rates, it’s a wonder that community colleges continue to do business as usual, with little or no change in practices that date back over half a century.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find, in my college emailbox, an announcement that I’ve been returning to, off and on, for the past few days. It is a call for proposals to address the problem of part-timers. The proposed plan has to either (1) assist part-time students earn 12 credits in an academic year or (2) shorten their time-to-degree. The deadline is close and the form is complicated, so I won’t be submitting a proposal. But I do have some thoughts on this subject.

From a part-time student’s perspective, college is only one of a handful of other responsibilities with higher priorities. S/he has to be able to fit it into her life, and not the other way around. The problem is that colleges are set up for traditional students whose main priority is to complete a program. So, like a square peg, she’s trying to fit into a round hole.

The courses she needs are either filled or offered at a time that’s not convenient for her. Offerings at night or on weekends are slim pickings. Even when she can fit a class in, she finds it difficult to meet deadlines, complete learning activities, or obtain learning assistance. Competing for her time are work and family demands. Furthermore, the commute to campus is all too often time-consuming and, if she drives, the cost of gas and limited parking stalls are an ongoing concern.

The fact that our hypothetical part-timer is among the majority of students who are poorly served should be an incentive to change, from a perspective that’s campus-centered to one that’s student-centered. In other words, colleges ought to be asking, How can we accommodate part-timers with their unique needs?

The title of the 2011 report mentioned above goes to the heart of the problem — “Time Is the Enemy.” The traditional college schedule is the enemy of the part-time student. It’s in one dimension, while part-timers are in another. Put another way, part-timers make up a completely different population that isn’t being served by the colleges as they are now. Put in still another way, part-timers are an open invitation for disruption, for a disruptive approach that will accommodate the needs of a large population of students who are currently being ignored. 

When the word “disruption” creeps into higher ed conversations, the reaction is immediately defensive. How can we stop it? It’s a dreaded monster, an invader on our turf. Either we kill it, or it kills us. Thus, every bit of news about the apparent weakening of the monster is greeted with a sigh of relief.

But what we fail to realize is that disruption has nothing to do with losing our traditional student base. The fact is, for disruptive theory to play out, the consumer base has to be different. Ford’s Model-T is a good example. It was disruptive. Not because it competed for the business of the rich. It didn’t. Those who could afford it continued to purchase luxury cars from custom manufacturers. The Model-T was disruptive because it changed the customer base by making ownership possible for the growing middle class. Prior to October 1, 1908, cars were accessible to a very small minority. After, a larger, wholly different population bought into the new technology.

The lesson here is a simple one. Think of college as a technology. As is, it’s fine for full-time students. The problem is, it doesn’t work for the large number of part-timers. For these, we need something disruptive. Our technology has to change, just as Ford’s breakthrough production methods lowered the price of cars.

So, what will work?

We can’t know for sure until we pilot test it, but a good place to start may be scheduling. The semester may be much too long — too much time for a work- or family-related crisis to jump up and bite the student. One or two of these and the semester is shot, and the student has to wait for the next semester to start all over again, from the beginning, even if she had completed a good portion of the course the first time around.

One way to get around this is to break the semester up into smaller chunks, e.g., four 4-week modules. Each mod could stand alone, and successful completion could earn the student a badge. Four badges would translate to 3 credits. This way, the student who fails to complete one mod could still receive three badges, and the following semester, all she needs to do is complete the missing mod for 3 credits. Another student who earned a single badge in a semester wouldn’t feel it was a total waste since that badge will still have currency the next semester. Thus the motivation to continue is leveraged.

This adjustable modular scheduling (AMS) approach is like a Lego kit. You can create an almost infinite number of designs with the same uniform blocks. For example, to ensure that students earn 12 credits in an academic year comprising two 16-week semesters, colleges could offer four 3-credit courses in a year-long block and allow students to attack the mods in a number of different ways. Students who have difficulty concentrating on more than one course at a time have the option to string the courses out into a sequence of four 8-week courses, with each course consisting of four 2-week mods. With each mod completion, the student earns a badge, and with four badges, 3 credits. In June, she has 16 badges and 12 credits.

If a student fails to complete a mod, she can still move on to the next to keep up with her cohorts. She can complete the missed mod the following semester or backtrack and complete it as she’s working on the latest mod.

Another variation for those with short attention spans or who enjoy variety is to attack all four courses at once over a whole year. Each course would be divided into four 8-week mods spanning the entire year, which translates to two 8-week mods a semester.

The idea is to granny step what amounts to a single giant leap for part-time students. This way they can accomplish a large task in smaller increments, and failure doesn’t mean returning to step one and starting all over again. Every success builds capital, and the failures are minimized.

Another twist in this Lego model is to build in self-pacing. In other words, students can work ahead, slow down, or keep pace. To sustain engagement and interaction among students, a continuous network of online forums is necessary. That is, a forum is devoted to each mod and students are required to participate. Thus, while they’re spread out over real time, they share virtual asynchronous discussion spaces. In Sakai and other LMSs, the discussion board has a feature that allows students to monitor without having to log in to a forum. When there’s a post, they’re automatically notified. Thus, even when they’ve moved on to other mods and forums, they can still participate in previous discussions. Built into LMSs is a private mail (PM) feature that allows one-to-one conversations, providing a means for students to reach out to individuals.

For a multi-semester, year-long block of courses to work, students would need to develop blog portfolios in WordPress or Blogger to share drafts and projects. These blogfolios could also be used to display students’ mod badges, which not only showcase accomplishments but notify classmates that they are resources for help in completing specific mods.

This Lego approach could also be MOOCed. Students and non-students could be allowed to register for free and caps could be lifted. The first assignment could be used to sort the serious from the merely curious. The former could then be gathered into a more closely guided group while the others are allowed to participate in the general environment. All would be able to earn badges. However, to have them turned into credits, the student would need to pay the course fee and submit her blogfolio for assessment by instructors.

In this MOOC variation, student interaction would play a critical role, and grouping the serious students assures that the quality of discussions is high. Also, participation and quality of comment would be a factor in grading. This peer review process is needed to offset the instructor’s workload when MOOC class sizes are large.

The number of students completing a MOOC will be considerably smaller than the number who enroll. Ten to 20% is probably in the ballpark. However, the actual number may still be equal to if not greater than regular classes. Noncompleters, too, gain a lot. In this relatively nonthreatening exposure to a course, they can still earn badges and gain enough confidence to retake the MOOC for credit at a later date.

In this rambling discussion, I’ve described a few technologies such as LMSs, discussion forums, MOOCs, and blogfolios, but these can be adapted for use in blended as well as completely online courses. In fact, flipped approaches are natural outgrowths. Students do most if not all the content mastery and discussion work online and out of class while class time is devoted to activities that benefit from F2F interaction with the instructor and classmates.

The advantage of online approaches is best realized among part-time students for whom traditional time and space requirements are obstacles. Finding the time and means to attend a class in person at a specific time in a specific place is difficult if not impossible when juggling job and family demands. A creative approach to managing online offerings could go a long way toward creating a disruptive model that works for part-timers.

Finally, in this discussion, I’ve been careful to weigh in with ideas that are sustainable. This Lego model is based on existing technology, staff, and procedures. It doesn’t require new software or hardware. It doesn’t depend on hiring additional staff. The blogs I’ve mentioned are available at no cost on the web. Nearly all colleges have LMSs. Discussion forums are familiar to most faculty and students.

Most faculty already use blended approaches in which course resources are accessible online via LMSs. Dividing them into Lego blocks or modules is a relatively simple task. Thus, many courses can be easily massaged to fit into this adjustable modular scheduling system.

Devising procedures to facilitate this scheduling and grading process may be a bit challenging at first for the records office, but it can be made to fit in nicely with existing practices.

Perhaps the greatest asset of this Lego approach is scalability. Over time, instructors could work at refining and improving their online learning modules with brief videos and other media, open web content, etc. Students could be included in the building of knowledge bases. Instructors could experiment with varying levels and types of F2F and online blends, or develop the means to move completely online.

The ultimate beneficiaries of an adjustable modular scheduling approach are part-time students who arrive at our gates in the thousands, looking for a way to make college a part of their demanding lives. By exploring and developing new ways to serve them, we transform the community college system into a dynamic gateway for upward mobility in the 21st century.

This approach could also serve as a fallback or safety net for traditional students who find that circumstances in their life have changed and they can no longer attend college on a full-time basis. Instead of dropping out, they can drop in to an alternative system.

In closing, I realize that I’ve only skimmed the surface of ideas and that much more thought needs to go into this approach before it can ever be applied. Please don’t hesitate to comment. Your questions, concerns, and suggestions will only help to further the discussion.

1 Time Is the Enemy, Complete College America, 2011.
2 Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2012). A Matter of Degrees: Promising Practices for Community College Student Success (A First Look). Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program.

15 Responses

  1. Statistics can be misleading. Your first question should be whether the student is seeking knowledge or a degree. Clearly, the former may not finish a one-size-fits-all program. Why should a degree be necessary for everyone? I know because I was one of those part-time students, although it was in a graduate MBA program. With a PhD already in hand, I hardly found another graduate degree to be a necessity. I was seeking more business knowledge to compete in the world of entrepreneurship.

    • Harry, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Here are my responses:

      Harry: Why should a degree be necessary for everyone?
      See Mary C. Daly and Leila Bengali’s “Is It Still Worth Going to College?” (FRBSF Economic Letter, 5/5/14): “In 2011, the latest data available in our sample, college graduates earned on average about $20,050 (61%) more per year than high school graduates.”

      Harry: Your first question should be whether the student is seeking knowledge or a degree.
      See p.6 of the CCCSE report: “Fewer than half of entering community college students with a goal of earning a degree or certificate meet their goal within six years after beginning college.” After 30+ years in the CCs, I know that a large number don’t indicate a degree goal, but the intent is still there.

      Harry: I was one of those part-time students, although it was in a graduate MBA program. With a PhD already in hand, I hardly found another graduate degree to be a necessity.
      My focus is CCs. I’ve had students like you, with degrees, including PhDs, in my classes, but they’re rare. Most students are there to earn a degree and a better living.

      • Jim,

        Thank you for extending the commentary and adding that useful information. It helps a great deal to know the magnitude. While my situation was extremely unusual, I can imagine those with bachelor degrees seeking to change jobs and having to obtain new learning to do so. A CC might be the perfect place to do so.

        I find the data on high school and college graduate very interesting. If you were to do a thorough multivariate analysis on the data, how much of the salary effect would be due to the ability and the inclination to go to college and how much would be created by the college education itself independently? In simple terms, if people were forced by circumstances to skip or leave college and those people were truly interested in finishing and capable of doing so (my father was in this situation, leaving after a year at U of Penn with an A average due to the Great Depression), how would their future be altered?

        Did Bill Gates get a degree? Did Dean Kamen? Compare their earnings to a typical graduate. I know that this is being very selective in choosing examples. I am glad that I managed to get a PhD in chemistry in just four years. Had it been much longer, I would have been struggling to stay in the program. That degree has been occasionally useful, but mostly it proved that I had the grit and smarts to do it. Grit and smarts are what lots of employers seek, and they are what lead to success in a chosen field. They’re also what get you into college and into graduate programs in the first place.

        The remark that “Most students are there to earn a degree and a better living” leaves me sort of empty. I just see too many degree holders doing menial work and having no clue about paying off that student debt. OTOH, this may be exactly what a thorough self-examination by CCs will fix. Lots of schools, mostly private, are promising the world and that you can just borrow against those fabulous future earnings to get there. I think that the CCs should fight back with lower costs and better earning potential by restructuring themselves often to meet the rapidly changing workplace. I would expect they could do so better than universities.

        The circumstances have created a gigantic opportunity. Grab it.

        • True, some with college degrees are jobless or underemployed. A degree isn’t a guarantee. But on average, college grads do a whole lot better. For those in college, the lesson is to make the most of the opportunity to learn rather than just earn a piece of paper.

          • I’ll go a step further in both directions. Students must do more during their educational experiences to maximize their investment of time and money, but colleges must do more to ensure that value. They cannot simply depend on immature youth to do it for themselves. If you can address that proposition well, your institution will prevail.

            As I indicated before, the better performance of college grads may have much to do with their selection in the first place. At CCs, it has to do more with a selection process that involves passing courses to advance to the next level.

            It’s certainly true that many employers view a degree as proof of something and an increased likelihood that the person will be a useful employee. I think that’s more because of the college process than the actual material learned. I wrote about this oddity recently, that colleges are not teaching students thinking skills other than memorization. Individual instructors are certainly exceptions to this rule, but overall institutions are not.

            Why is it that Harvey Mudd and Caltech grads are among the highest salary earners in the first five years of employment? These schools and the others in the list do not settle for an ordinary, average education. They force their students to work very hard on thinking skills or leave.

            This sort of education is not restricted to a few select institutions. Anyone can do it. It takes extra work by instructors and students, but it’s well worth it. A degree is just a piece of paper. What’s behind it is what really counts. Someday, that training in creative, rational, and critical thinking will make a big difference in someone’s life, in more than just a few lives. People who have learned these things and learned the crucial skill of communication will go far. They don’t settle. They do.

          • Harry, meritocracy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it seems fair to reward the most able. On the other, it’s discriminatory when the most able are the historically privileged and the less able are the historically poor. There are exceptions of course, e.g., the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who makes it big, but these are token and gloss over historical injustices for the masses. It stands to reason that highly selective schools will produce some of the highest paid workers. It’s like having the same NFL or NBA team draft first every year. They’ll dominate the league. The question for open door state-run community colleges is not how well they stack up against the top colleges in the country. That would be pointless since the majority of students are underprepared for college-level work and need refresher courses for basic skills that should have been mastered in K-12. And that’s only the academic dimension. There’s also the social and economic. The question for these colleges is: How do we take them from where they are now to where they can earn a college degree and make a decent living? That’s where this discussion ought to be headed.

          • My point is that getting into college makes a selection. Getting past the first year makes a further selection. Graduating makes yet another. All of these selections are based on criteria that guarantee that the average wage of successful people will be higher irrespective of the quality of their college learning.

            Note that this is an average phenomenon. It tends to ignore outliers at both ends.

            Let me put it this way, the graduates will have higher salaries regardless of the quality of their college education — on average. One possible reason for this could be the willingness of those who go to college to put in lots more effort and face greater obstacles. I’m sure anyone can think up more reasons based solely on ability to get into and get through college. If the specific factual learning of the college years could be erased upon graduation, my thesis is that the income disparity would remain.

            Let us all be thankful for community colleges that allow the poor and those without good K-12 educations to move ahead. Let’s work to lower the cost and improve the value of the CC courses for them. When I graduated, my class of 500 had only a few going to 4-year colleges. About half went to the local CC, and the rest went to work. I grew up a town that could be described as the bottom of the middle class and the top of the lowest class. A few years after graduation, a couple of my classmates were killed in a gas station robbery.

          • One of my profs, I don’t remember which, in college jokingly said that we ought to give every child at birth a college degree and be done with that stressor in our lives. It was absurd, of course, and we all laughed, but that joke has been nibbling at the edge of my consciousness ever since. He gave us a puzzle for a lifetime, and it’s these stickies that are the most valuable in the long run. They keep returning, and it’s happening now. Another was from Professor Sol Jaeckel, who casually asked us to consider the difference between “school” and “education.” We didn’t give it much thought at first and offered up easy answers. But as the semester progressed, he’d mention it off and on at unexpected moments, and our answers gradually became less sure, less confident. Gradually, the question became a silent refrain that hung over our sessions. And it hangs over me today. They’re like reminders of fundamental issues that we rediscover when we dig deep enough into louder and more visible issues. Most will deny it, but we, as a society, are essentially using degrees to measure the value of human beings. We’re disregarding a whole spectrum of other variables that may be more reliable or valid indicators of value. We’re placing a higher value on “schooling,” which is formal, rather than “education,” which can be informal. Again, we’re disregarding a wide range of other variables such as non-school-related proven work experience and accomplishments. If we, as a society, are failing, then we may want to revisit these dualities. Are we looking at the right stuff?

  2. Those statistics on completion rates must be viewed as an opportunity rather than a problem. Someone must ask students why they leave and use those responses to design solutions.

    For example, suppose that the student just cannot make the tuition payments. There was a time when community colleges were virtually free. Only a registration fee was required — and books. It’s sad that those days have past. Can they be returned? With nearly free online textbooks and low-cost online schools such as StraighterLine, it’s possible. Now, suppose that a legislature decides to subsidize that approach but in its own public institutions instead of directly to the private one.

    For many students, four years is a long time, and circumstances change. Perhaps, that job goal that required the degree is no longer so enticing. Possibly, a job change has made formal schooling unnecessary.

    For other students, a particular course is their goal. That course may have prerequisites. So, the student takes a few courses, achieves the desired goal, and leaves.

    There are students who are exploring the idea of going to college. Community college is the least stressful (on mind and wallet) approach. The instructors are not distracted by grant applications and research and really do pay attention to their students. These students enroll in what they consider as a trial basis. Many will decide that college is simply inappropriate for their lives. That’s fine.

    Put simply, a community college drop-out may be a lesson to be learned or just the way things are — no adjustment of the college will change the outcome.

    Cost, time, and relevance all contribute to the ultimate individual evaluation of the worth of taking college courses. Students commit their most precious resource, time, to this endeavor. The cost must be affordable without taking out large loans that may be very difficult to pay off, especially if the nature of the job market makes the degree useless to move up in income.

    Time is more than just total time required. It’s also time flexibility. Courses should be anywhere, anytime, and at your own pace. For some students, a blitz approach may fit a course into the space between temp job assignments. For others, family and work responsibilities could mean that only weekend mornings are available for study. I am not convinced that you must have lots of interaction with other students in a timely fashion. What someone wrote about a course a year ago may be more useful than what contemporary students are writing today.

    The relevance aspect has been overdone from time to time in the modern history of education. What I mean by relevance is that the courses taken clearly point to a goal. If the relationship between course and goal is unclear to students, then the institution has the burden of showing that relationship clearly and concisely. Just because it’s how things are done is far from sufficient. Students under stress will balk at courses that seem to have no value but are required for graduation. Motivation is a key to success here. Help you students understand that the value of their education and the courses they take to achieve are more than just an abstraction.

    • Harry: Someone must ask students why they leave and use those responses to design solutions.
      See p.7 of the CCCSE report for stats on obstacles to completion.

      Harry: Courses should be anywhere, anytime, and at your own pace.

      Put simply, a community college drop-out may be a lesson to be learned or just the way things are — no adjustment of the college will change the outcome.
      It may be true that no amount of change can prevent drop-outs, but we won’t know that for sure until we try. I can’t think of a more worthwhile goal than to help a fellow human being better her/his life. CCs are a gateway for many who are struggling economically, and we have to do a better job.

      • I see that I may have made an error in presenting my ideas. The “lesson to be learned” part did not go with “no adjustment…”

        The CCs present our greatest hope for the future. Many years ago, I was not really concerned with them. I’ve learned much about CCs and post-secondary education since then. They don’t get the press of Harvard or Yale or MIT. They do have an incredible opportunity because they service those who truly must have a better education. Bill Gates did not have to have Harvard to succeed. He did not learn business or computer programming there as far as I can tell. Had he gone to a CC, he probably would have been capable of the same success — and he would have finished his 2-year degree for sure.

        My vision of the future of education won’t so much prevent dropouts as it will encourage completion.

  3. This article opens up so many questions about modern education that I am stimulated to say one more thing. The future of education will not look like the past. Among all educational institutions (K-12 and post-secondary), community colleges are best positioned to become that future first — unless some private entrepreneur manages to beat everyone to it and take over the world.

    Today’s online educational resources are rather poor in general — when compared to what they might be. You can point to plenty of online resources that you like, I’m sure. However, your standard must be raised — a lot!

    Videos, tests, online textbooks, mixed video/test systems, Khan Academy, and all the rest are weak compared with the potential for online learning.

    Online learning can be self-paced, learn-to-mastery, highly interactive, experiential, adaptive, engaging, and life-altering experiences. They can do this without a large time commitment from an instructor, although an instructor should be in the loop. The online resources can inform the instructor of student progress and flag issues that the instructor should address in real time. In this model, the online instructor must be a true master, a real expert, in the science of learning and in the subject matter being learned. Unlike many of today’s online instructors, they cannot be merely up to the student competence level or know the textbook (which no longer exists) well. They must possess a deep understanding of the material being learned and of the many different ways in which different people learn it.

    For this reason, the instructors of the future must be paid much more than today’s instructors. While the future may not have the instructor-student interaction time be anywhere near as large as it is today, that interaction will be at least as crucial to student success and probably more so that before.

    Because of the necessity for continuing learning throughout a lifetime in the future (even in the present), the number of students will increase even as the student-teacher ratio also grows. Marginal instructors will be removed from the system, but the better ones who can adapt will find ample positions. Education automation will increase demand for the best instructors and relieve us of the necessity of hiring the less capable ones.

    This is my vision of the future of education. It goes far beyond MOOCs and blended learning.

    • Harry: Today’s online educational resources are rather poor in general — when compared to what they might be.
      Yes, they could be better. However, as you imply, implementation is the key. Even the best resources, when poorly applied in the classroom, turn out “poor” results. But this is true for onground courses, too. The fact is, the total web learning environment dwarfs the types of educational resources that you list. Look past the packaged and canned stuff, and you’ll find a world of resources that boggles the imagination. Today’s online teacher has a nearly limitless amount of information to tap into for lessons and activities. As John Sener says in his book, The Seven Futures of American Education, the problem is no longer scarcity. It’s plenty. Overabundance.

      • Well… Overabundance of mediocre resources is a problem. My standards are not the same as those of everyone else. Surely, some have even higher standards.

        As I look around at science learning resources, I begin to see a few points of light in a morass of darkness. The movement is beginning. Education as we know it is on its way to the record industry as we knew it. The Internet will be the key to each industry transformation. We do not yet have the iTunes of education, and I doubt that a single change like that one will do the trick.

        A new cohort of learners is coming at us. The analog world of old is irrelevant to them. They have close-by and distant (digital) friendships. They are comfortable with both, especially the long-distance ones. New software is their milieu. They grab onto faster than the rest of us become aware of it. Then, if it’s any good, they use it in unexpected ways.

        What will we call these people? The connected generation? The information generation? The tech generation? Don’t know, but we had better be ready for them. If we’re not, they’ll just take learning into their own hands and bypass every one of our educational institutions. Talk about disruption!

  4. Received an eblast containing a message from Gail O. Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, this morning re Ginia Bellafante’s “Community College Students Face a Very Long Road to Graduation” in the 10/3/14 NY Times. Here’s a quote: “Among community college students, work and child rearing present the biggest barriers to consistent attendance. Relative to their peers, LaGuardia students face some of the longest commuting times in the country. Mr. Scheindlin’s class, for example, met twice a week at 9:15 a.m., and on some of those mornings Mr. de Jesus had to take his 6-year-old daughter, Svetlana, to school, traveling from Roosevelt Island to the Tremont section of the Bronx by way of the F and D trains and then the B42 bus, before he could get to LaGuardia’s campus, more than an hour away.” Time and distance — besides work and childcare — are problematic for de Jesus and other part-time students. Elsewhere in his story is the difficulty of completing a semester-long course. I would have cited this article had I read it earlier.

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