One question could boost graduation rates. Are you asking it?

According to a new study, you might retain more students by asking them one simple, but powerful, question: "Is there any way you could enroll full-time, even for one semester?"

A study by University of Texas at Austin's Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) found that just one semester of full-time attendance could make a major difference in students' likelihood of graduating.

To conduct the study, researchers at CCCSE analyzed data from the transcripts of 17,085 students at 28 community colleges.

CCCSE Executive Director Evelyn Waiwaiole highlights the study's focus on students with fluid attendance patterns—those who attend college full-time at some point during their college years but not for the entire time. These students, according to the study, had better persistence, graduation, and engagement than their peers who exclusively attended part-time.

For example, the researchers found that students who enroll full-time in their first semester were more likely than their part-time peers to:

  • Return for a second year (77% vs. 64%);
  • Earn a credential (38% vs. 31%); and
  • Graduate with an associate degree or certificate (38% vs. 31%).

The researchers also found that students with fluid attendance patterns ranked close to always-full-time students on several measures of engagement, including:

  • Student effort;
  • Academic challenge; and
  • Student-faculty interaction.

The researchers suggested several possible reasons behind the outcomes boost. They speculated that students with fluid attendance patterns are more likely than their part-time-only peers to:

  • Be required to attend new-student orientation (if that semester occurs during the first year);
  • More easily access academic advisors and support services;
  • Gain more opportunities to collaborate with other students; and
  • Have greater exposure to full-time faculty members.

"Because there is an obvious benefit in students having some full-time experience, a full-time edge, you might say, colleges should consider asking each student one straightforward question: Is there any way you could attend full-time, even for one semester?," Waiwaiole says.

The benefits increase even more when students up their course loads to 15 credits as opposed to 12. According to Columbia University Teachers College's Center for Community College Research, community college students who take at least 15 credits per semester are 6.4 percentage points more likely to earn credentials than students who take 12 credits. 

Despite the apparent benefits of full-time course loads, though, only 38% of community college students are enrolled full-time. 

Students at four-year institutions face barriers to enrolling full time, too

And while many schools are nudging their students to increase their course loads through discounted rates and campaigns like Complete College America's "15 to Finish," many students simply don't have any other option than to enroll part-time. Whether they're working 30 hours a week or have children at home, part-time students often don't have the resources to set their obligations aside—even if banded tuition rates and supplementary grants do make the extra few credits more affordable. 

One way to increase graduation rates: Help students reduce working hours

Because these barriers to full-time enrollment can be non-negotiable, Karen Stout, the president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, says colleges need to better design their services to help part-time students reap the same benefits that contribute to full-time students' higher graduation rates.

This might look like:

  • Tweaking course schedules to make them more accessible to working students;
  • Making full-time enrollment incentives less financially punitive for part-timers; and
  • Keeping part-time students in mind when designing tuition discount plans, or full-on free-college plans.

(Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 4/19).

3 ways to make advising experiences meaningful for disengaged students


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