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Two years ago, when Amanda Gomez could not get financial aid for community college, she decided to enroll part time at El Paso Community College in Texas. This gave her time to work to pay for her courses.
Being a part-time student has its pros — mainly a lighter course load. But Gomez feels like she misses out on some important experiences, like being able to stay back after class to talk to her instructors, or study in libraries on campus.
She says the difference was notable when she took a semester as a full-time student.
"I did enjoy the full-time semester more because I thought I was more involved in the school," Gomez says. However, she chose to go back to part time to more easily manage her time between work and classes.
Gomez's experience is representative. A recent report by the nonprofit Center for Community College Student Engagement demonstrates that students who enroll full time in community colleges fare better than their part-time counterparts.
The report, Even One Semester: Full-Time Enrollment and Student Success, shows that 50 percent of always-full-time students earned an associate degree or certificate. In contrast, only 23 percent of always-part-time students complete their degrees.
But here's the key new insight for students like Gomez: Attending just one semester as a full-time student can make a difference in academic performance and campus life engagement; 34 percent of these students complete their degrees.
The report breaks down statistics comparing student engagement across the three attendance categories: always-part-time, ever-full-time and always-full-time. Surprisingly, more than half the students, 54 percent, fell into the "ever-full-time" or fluid-attendance category. Just 18 percent are full time all the way through.
No matter how the study looked at student engagement, full-time students were most engaged, while part-time students were least. But "ever-full-time" students looked more like the full-timers than the part-timers.
For example, 81 percent of full-time students reported talking to a career adviser. Seventy percent of always-part-time students did. Students with fluid attendance are in the middle.
This is one of the first reports to look specifically at the pattern of fluid attendance.
"Probably for over a decade now, there's been a lot of conversation about getting more students to complete community college," says Evelyn Waiwaiole, executive director for the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. "While attending full-time will be unrealistic for every student, we need to think about why always-part-time students are having a qualitatively different experience and push for changes to be made."
The report describes initiatives around the country encouraging students to take at least one full-time semester at college. One example would be the new "Excelsior Scholarship" in New York State, which eliminates tuition costs for full-time students only. The Tennessee Promise statewide scholarship has the same requirement.
The report says that if they can do only one, it is most beneficial for students to take their first semester as full-time students, ensuring they can participate in orientation programs and other first-year activities.
Another strategy the report recommends is asking colleges to find more ways to engage part-time students. Northern Virginia Community College, for example, takes great care in spacing out events to ensure students can attend them at varying times of the day and semester, says Brian Anweiler, NOVA's director of student life and athletics.
"A student is a student is a student. We do what we can for them, but many of them juggle work, children, spouses, and really it's what they can do without sacrificing out important parts of their life," Anweiler says.
However, to Amanda Gomez the most important factor is for students to have the motivation and dedication to succeed. The mathematics major says that the money from a job can easily distract a young student from focusing on school.
"My motivation is that I'm a first-generation [student] so I want to do better and help my family and succeed in something when I have an opportunity which they didn't. So it's something part-timers definitely need to try and keep in mind," she says, to help them power through and finish.