Did you know that fewer than 1 in 5 undergraduate students who enroll part-time at a four-year college have earned a bachelor’s degree eight years later?
This is alarmingly 40% lower than the national eight-year graduation rate for full-time students. With part-time students now making up more than 25% of students at four-year colleges and 65% at community colleges, federal forecasters predict part-time enrollment outpacing full-time enrollment through at least 2027.
So, what can student affairs professionals do to respond to this trend? Well, part-time students come with their own unique challenges and strengths. On average, they are six years older than full-time students, come from lower-income backgrounds, and are more likely to be veterans and parents.
In addition to juggling other responsibilities, part-time students may feel alienated on campus and in student organizations due to their age and perception as “non-traditional” students.
It is our job as SApros to engage and work with students of all backgrounds to help them achieve their definition of success.
But how do we lift part-time students up towards success when our training and education has focused almost entirely on students of traditional backgrounds, who are enrolled full-time?
As an academic advisor at a four-year institution that primarily serves part-time students, I faced this challenge head-on. Here’s what I’ve found works best.
1. Banish the myth that part-time students don’t want to get involved
As Scottsdale Community College puts it, “Participation in the work of various clubs and organizations on campus provides students an opportunity to acquire leadership, planning, and social skills that are important for successful living.” These skills are pertinent to all students, part-timers included.
Be sure to post flyers about clubs, organizations, and events in places where part-time students gather, such as the commuter lounge or campus cafe. And include information about campus involvement in commuter or part-time student orientation. You could even start a newsletter, social media page, or club specifically aimed toward supporting part-time students.
2. Encourage part-time students to get to know each other
Help part-time students feel less alone in their experience by hosting a networking event just for them. You could even have special name badges or ribbons that designate students as veterans, parents, commuters, first-gens, or other roles and experiences.
But be sure to schedule these events after traditional work hours or virtually so that all students can attend. And if at all possible, offer free childcare or make the event family-friendly.
3. Expand class times & options
Expand times and virtual options for courses and co-curricular programs to make these activities more accessible to students who have work schedules and family responsibilities. For example, Arkansas Tech University did a great job of this in offering fully virtual pre-orientation programming. Traditional 9-5 jobs may be incompatible with attendance in traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction or extracurriculars which overlap with their work hours.
4. Offer childcare
Ensure that student-parents have access to affordable, high-quality child care while they’re in class, the library, or participating in extracurriculars on campus — which one study found more than tripled their likelihood of on-time graduation. You could employ students interested in gaining credit for working in campus childcare.
5. Streamline complex admissions procedures
Admissions processes, add/drop policies, and financial aid procedures may be intimidating for prospective part-time students, many of whom may be applying without the help of a high school counselor. Many students will also be first-generation and may not be familiar with the admissions process. Advocate for streamlining these services or adding the explanations of terms on your website with administrators.
6. Simplify academic terms
Create pamphlets, announcements, and bulletin boards that explain frequently misunderstood academic terms, such as syllabus, prerequisites, thesis, and pass-fail.
7. Expand financial aid terms to cover part-time students
Did you know that students taking less than six credits are ineligible for FAFSA aid? Many scholarships and grants also exclude part-time students, falsely assuming that these students do not need the aid. You can be an ally to these students by advocating for the lifting of these exclusions.
You could also create a list of scholarships that are either specifically geared toward part-time students or may apply to them. College Scholarships is a great resource for non-traditional students of all backgrounds and needs.
8. Establish an Office of Part-Time and Continuing Studies
Some institutions, such as the University of Saint Joseph, have their own Office of Part-Time and Continuing Studies, which serve to support part-time students from their application through to graduation. Although establishing such an office may not be feasible within every budget, consider if you can at least have a part-time student lounge, designated academic advisor, or a bulletin board dedicated to these students.
9. Emphasize student-centered teaching
This teaching method focuses on individual learning needs to promote persistence and success. It centers on displaying empathy towards students and acknowledging individual needs. For example, an instructor who makes accommodations for a student-caregiver experiencing a family emergency is practicing student-centered teaching. Bring this mindset with you when you teach first-year seminars, facilitate workshops, or lead other co-curricular student experiences.
10. Create an emergency fund
Provide resources to alleviate frequent student expenses — such as laptop sharing programs, free or reduced student health insurance, and emergency financial aid. Even if you are not in the position to create such funds yourself, you can help make part-time students aware of such financial opportunities and resources.
11. Highlight campus support services
Emphasize the availability of services like academic coaching, mental health counseling, food pantries, emergency financial aid, peer and professional support, and physical and mental health care — which have all shown to increase postsecondary success — via orientation, bulletin boards, pamphlets, and social media posts.
12. Schedule ahead
Work with academic and career advisors to help part-time students plot out their fall schedule as early as possible, so that they can balance work hours, class times, and extracurricular activities. As a bonus, help them start filling in their planner, week by week or even day by day, by reviewing the syllabi for their fall classes together.
14. Improve time management skills
Connect busy part-time students with academic success centers and other resources to improve their time management skills. Staff can help students plan time for meals, sitting in traffic, taking breaks between classes, checking email, socializing with classmates, and simply taking time to breathe between responsibilities.
14. Emphasize good study habits
Help students build a foundation of positive study habits early on. Doing so can maximize the quality of each study session that a busy study manages to work in between all of their other responsibilities. Students can utilize these study and time management skills throughout their entire education and beyond.
15. Establish a support network
Create a map for part-time students to identify when and where they will utilize their network of support — including professors, tutors, career advisors, mentors, study groups, friends, and family members.
16. Share off-campus resources
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides resources beyond what your campus may be able for students facing housing insecurity. And the Family and Youth Services Bureau offer additional resources, including violence prevention services, sex health education, and help for victims of domestic violence. Share pamphlets and flyers to spread the word about these resources. I especially recommend advertising within popular student lounges and student-facing offices.
17. Get their job involved
In 2017, 81% of part-time students reported that they were employed while enrolled. Career coaches can help students make the most of their dual responsibilities by:
- Assisting students in finding post-graduation careers that align with both their educational and work experiences.
- Facilitating workshops that revolve around tailoring resumes and cover letters with an emphasis on transferable skills students have gained at their jobs
- Developing career goals, whether students plan at staying at their current job or finding a different job after graduation.
There are many benefits and challenges to attending college part-time, with one major drawback being that many part-time students feel disconnected from their campuses.
As SApros, it’s our mission to make all students — including those who are enrolled part-time — feel welcome, invited, and included at campus events.
What additional advice do you have about engaging with non-traditional students? Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.
And for more advice on supporting an expanding group of nontraditional students, check out 4 Factors to Consider for Supporting Students in Their 30s, 40s, 50s, & Beyond.