Full-time, all the time may not work for all students

'Mixed enrollment' allows individuals to balance life and educational responsibilities

See EAB's take on the study results.

Students returning to college after a significant period of time are more likely to graduate if they mix full- and part-time enrollment, rather than just attending full-time until completion, according to a new study.

A coalition of higher education organizations analyzed 12 million student records from the National Student Clearinghouse to track retention and graduation rates of non-first-time students.

The American Council on Education (ACE), InsideTrack, NASPA- Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), and National Student Clearinghouse found that students who took a "mixed enrollment" approach to school were more likely to earn an associate degree than their peers.

Researchers followed two student cohorts who returned following at least a year-long break: 4.6 million who returned between 2005 and 2008, and 7.7 million who returned between 2008 and 2013.

In the first group, 15.8% of students who pursued a mixed-enrollment pattern received associate degrees within six years, compared with just 10.2% of those attending exclusively full time. Those going only part-time had the lowest completion rate, just 6.5%. The second cohort has produced a similar pattern so far.

Researchers found that enrolling part-time allows non-first time students to better balance responsibilities.

"Returning students are typically balancing work, family and other commitments that ebb and flow in intensity over the course of their academic career," says Dave Jarrat, InsideTrack's VP of marketing. "Mixing part-time and full-time enrollment enables these students to persist through the inevitable fluctuations in their life obligations."

However, for those returning to pursue bachelor's degrees, going exclusively full-time produced better results within six years:

  • 34.4% of full-time only students completed;
  • 6.7% of exclusively part-time students graduated; and
  • 24.7% of mix-enrollment students finished.

The report adds nuance to the suggestion that all students should attend full-time. Recently, a push from nonprofit advocacy groups and programs has encouraged students to go take a 15-credit course load. Currently, the federal government classifies full time as 12 credits per semester.

Report: Students benefit from 15 credits per semester

However, those organizations generally focus on first-time students at four-year colleges and universities.

"We never said all students should take 15 credits," said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America. "These are very different student populations" (Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 1/21; "The Ticker," Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/21).

The takeaway: A new study shows that mixing full-time and part-time enrollment results in better completion rates for students returning to higher education.

EAB's take

Jed Diamond

Jed Diamond, Continuing and Online Education Forum

Around 54 million U.S. adults currently have some college experience but lack a bachelor's degree, comprising a vast market of potential degree completers. We also know that adult and non-traditional students are fast becoming the norm—NCES data shows that 32% of students work full-time, 37% attend part-time, and 40% are older than 25—and that these students require program options and support services that speak to their academic experience and personal circumstances. As this market continues to grow, it will become increasingly important to identify approaches that help these students complete.

EAB has extensively focused on how institutions can best help adult—or "new" traditional—students both seamlessly re-engage with, as well as graduate from, degree completion programs. Our recent webinars profile examples of expedited re-admissions processes, enrollment persistence incentives, and high-touch support catered specifically to busy adults and working professionals.

Learn more by viewing our webinars, Strategic Interventions for Adult Learners and Improving Outcomes for Degree Completers.

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