Complete College America has just released a very interesting and important report entitled Time is the Enemy: the surprising truth about why today's college students aren't graduating- and what needs to change. The report moves beyond typical IPEDS information that focuses on full time students who enter as freshmen, thus ignoring part time and transfer students. Thirty three states provided information on their public systems that went into this report. A couple of caveats: The data do not track educational pathways of individual students (as is now available in a few instances), but rather use gross data such as entries, graduations, drop-outs, transfers from one part of a state's public system into another part of the same system. Thus, for example, transfers to private (either non- or for-profit) institutions and public systems in another states are not included. In addition, the labels "full" and "part-time" student are defined by the status of the student in the first term of enrollment, which may or may not be descriptive of the way many of today's students follow their education.These and other similar caveats aside, this report provides an excellent first look at a much larger and broader set of students than are described by IPEDS.
The report contains two striking demographic facts that underline problems in the way that we typically view higher education:
- 40% of public college students are able to attend only part time
- only 25% of college students are "traditional" in the sense that they are attending full time, attending a residential college, and have parents that are are paying most of their bills
Unfortunately, most of the arguments and discussions one hears concerning higher education take place in some imaginary world in which students are traditional in the sense above. This is probably because much of our education system originally was designed around the traditional student and his or her needs, and the leading institutions in the system still serve primarily the traditional student. As a consequence, potential changes in educational approach or organization are most often judged according to whether or not they will benefit those traditional students who enjoy the benefits of residential life and a manageable financial burden. But, as this report describes, times have changed, the composition of the student body has changed, and because many of our institutions have not changed accordingly, the results are not pretty.
In particular, the report focuses on the plight of part time students, and shows that graduation rates for part time students at all levels - certificates, associates, and bachelors - are only about 40% as high as for full time students (if one looks at a time period twice the nominal period required for graduation). Graduation rates for both full time and part time students who are African-American, Hispanic, older, or low income are considerably lower than for the general student body, and the part-time "penalty" is somewhat higher than for the general population.
The report concludes that at least part of the problem can be solved by getting more students into full time study. To this end, they make an number of excellent proposals that include block schedules that pack courses into a more compact period, online technology to minimize class times, competency based advancement, common general education courses with guaranteed transferability throughout the system, and capping allowed credit hours to force students to move straight to degrees. Special focus is reserved for remedial education:
Remedial classes have become the Bermuda Triangle of higher education. Most students are lost, and few will ever be seen on graduation day.
A number of excellent suggestions are made here as well - although it is clear there is not a "magic bullet" solution to this issue, perhaps because higher education is being asked to do a job that is not part of its core competency.
All in all, a very important report, with sensible and meaningful recommendations. I can't give it an A, however, because I think its basic conclusion in not bold enough - and maybe not even correct. The recommendation is basically to fiddle the system to enable part time students to behave more like full time students, assuming that if they can behave more like full time students they will graduate like full time students. That is not a bad idea, of course, but why not start from the premise that the system itself needs to be redesigned so that it focuses on the needs of the part time students? Maybe the problem is not simply the full time/part time divide, but that the system responds or does not respond to the many and highly varied needs of part time (and by extension, non-traditional) students.
That student focus is what the University of Phoenix originally used when it set up classrooms wherever there were concentrations of students - it went to the students rather than making them come to a physical central campus. Phoenix then moved into online presentation when the technology allowed, thus making it even easier for working students to participate. That focus is what Western Governors University used when it pioneered competency based learning, so that students could get credit for pertinent knowledge gained anywhere by any means, and introduced pricing models that enable students to move as rapidly as they can through the system.
And what about curriculum? Many part time students have an understandably sharp focus on gaining skills and knowledge that will be useful in the workplace. Much of our traditional curriculum does not provide the obvious contact with workplace skills that might stimulate more non-traditional students to persevere in their education. However, there are institutions in both the for- and non-profit sectors that work closely with employers to ensure that their curriculum provides the skills and knowledge needed to enter into the workforce. Perhaps we could learn things about curriculum from these institutions that would improve graduation rates for part time students.
A very important contribution to a very important problem - but I have the feeling that to really make an advance, we have to stop trying to fit the student into the existing box, and start trying to remake the box to fit the student.