What Do College Students Really Look Like?

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash
Marcella Bombardieri
Read the full report here.

Introduction and summary

Missy Antonio is a 37-year-old full-time mother who balances taking care of her toddler son and 8-year-old daughter with studying for a college degree. Her husband works long hours, so Antonio is often solo chasing after her not-yet 2-year-old from the wee hours of the morning, and getting her daughter off to school and back each day. During nap time and late at night, she studies to keep her grades up to get into the nursing program at her school, the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC).

Too often, it is assumed that the average college student is the 19-year-old living in a dorm and studying in the sunshine on a leafy quad. In reality, many of today’s students have more in common with Missy Antonio than they do with fresh-out-of-high-school undergrad living in a campus residence hall. Many of today’s college students are older and balancing college with considerable family and work demands.1 In many cases, that means they can only pursue their studies part-time. In fact, 37 percent of undergraduates seeking a college degree or other educational credential are attending college part-time. That is 6.5 million students out of the 17 million students enrolled in American colleges.2

For Antonio, juggling school and family is complicated at best, and an unexpected circumstance can easily wreak havoc. That is what happened on a recent weekend this spring. Missy had plans to spend Sunday afternoon at the library studying for an anatomy and physiology test coming up that Monday. But then her daughter started vomiting Saturday evening, and Antonio was up all night taking care of her. On Sunday, her husband had to work an overtime shift, and her daughter was still too sick to go to her grandparents. Unable to make it to the library, Antonio instead wound up staying up studying until 3 a.m. Monday. She was able to sleep for just a few hours, then spent all day Monday caring for her toddler; that evening, she showed up for the exam exhausted.

“My brain was all over the place,” she recalled later. She got a disappointing C on the exam.

That grueling weekend was just another challenging step on a long journey for Antonio to earn a degree as a part-time college student. Thanks in part to several noncredit developmental courses she had to take, Antonio expects it to take about seven years to earn her associate degree in nursing at CCBC, and then one more year to get a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution through a combined associate-to-bachelor’s program. This is very typical for part-time students: Those who earn an associate degree take an average of more than eight years to do so.3 What is more unusual about Antonio is that she has already made it more than halfway through.

“Everybody is always telling me I’m crazy,” Antonio said about the time she has spent plugging away at school. In the wake of her surprise pregnancy with her second child, Antonio kept going with her studies. “I put so much time into it, and so many sleepless nights. I don’t want to quit.”

A first-generation student, Antonio decided to go to college when she got laid off from a job at an accounting firm where she had worked for a dozen years. Her reasoning for becoming a nurse is practical: She wants to secure a place for herself in the U.S. economy.

“I really want to have a job where people can’t say, ‘We don’t need you,’” she said. “It’s sometimes very stressful, but I just keep telling myself it’s all going to be worth it.”

Sadly, the U.S. higher education system is failing far too many part-time students. Only about one-quarter of exclusively part-time students earn a degree within eight years of starting college. Even those who attend part-time for only a portion of their college career fare poorly; just more than half of these students eventually earn a degree. That is compared to about 80 percent of exclusively full-time students who attain a degree.4

Moreover, too many part-time students never come close to finishing college and earning a degree. Four in 10 students who attend college exclusively part-time in their first-year are not enrolled in classes the next year.5

Low rates of part-time completion are not just bad for individual students who are seeking the opportunities that come with a college degree. The poor degree attainment outcomes of part-time students hold the entire nation back from meeting national educational needs that are key to keeping the United States globally competitive.

Policymakers across the country have increasingly recognized the imperative to produce more college graduates in order to build a competitive economy. In fact, the United States needs more than 16 million more people to earn a postsecondary credential by 2025.6 The United States will never hit those targets unless part-time students are offered a more viable path.

In this report, the Center for American Progress details what is known about part-time students and their experiences, and explores what still needs to be learned to help them persist on the long road to a college credential. In addition to examining available data, the report shares the specific stories of part-time students at Maryland’s Community College of Baltimore County, a large community college where 7 in 10 students attend part-time. The interviews of part-time students offer insight on why students choose to study part-time, what barriers they face, and what supports help them maintain their educational momentum.

As this report makes clear, part-time students are hidden in plain sight—that is to say, that while there is some statistical data about this population, there is much more to learn about part-time students and what supports are needed to improve their prospects in college and beyond. Currently, data at the federal and state level fail to capture their experiences and outcomes. And while there are promising practices around advising and tutoring, accelerated developmental education, adequate financial aid, and child care, there’s limited research specifically focused on how best to serve the part-time student population. To the extent that policies address part-time students at all, it is often to offer incentives to encourage students to attend full-time instead.7 While reaching full-time status is a worthwhile goal for some students who are taking fewer courses than they reasonably could, viable solutions are still needed for students such as Missy Antonio, who cannot realistically take on a full course load.

The good news is that new insight about where part-time students are most likely to succeed—or fail—is on the horizon. The federal U.S. Department of Education has begun collecting part-time graduation rates from colleges and universities.8These data have not yet been made public, but initial numbers are expected to appear later this fall. Once they are available, these figures will allow policymakers and researchers to take simple steps forward— for example, identifying institutions that are especially successful with part-time students and can share best practices with the rest of the field.

It is imperative that policymakers and institutional leaders more explicitly include part-time students in their work to improve college completion in the United States. Hopefully, this report and the voices of students like Missy Antonio will inspire new energy and creativity in this arena.

Read the full report here.

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