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Students attend a journalism class at Frederick Community College in Maryland. About 16,000 students of all ages attend the college. Tuition and fees are about half of what they are at four-year public colleges in the state.
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Even a semester of full-time school may help college students

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A new study shows that community college students who attend school full-time for a semester are more likely to graduate – and engage positively at school – than those who do not.

Fengie Saintelus was 25 years old, trying to mix part-time enrollment in a community college with 12-hour shifts as a nursing assistant, when she found out that she was failing one of her classes.

It was a shock. Ms. Saintelus says she had thought she was getting by, but the long hours at work made her feel disconnected from her studies and campus life at Connecticut’s Norwalk Community College.

 “I wasn't involved, I didn't have time to be involved. I didn't even know who my adviser was,” says Saintelus.

So she made a decision that made all the difference: She committed to going to school full-time. Two years later Saintelus graduated from Norwalk with an associate’s degree in social work.

Researchers have long known that full-time students at two-year institutions graduate at far higher rates: 57 percent, versus about 39 for all students. But a new report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) suggests that even one semester of full-time enrollment could make a significant difference in the likelihood that a student will attain a qualification.

More than one third of students tracked in the CCCSE report who attended at least one semester full time graduated with an associate’s degree or certificate, compared to 23 percent of those who went part time. “What we see in the data is the more full-time they have the more likely they are to be successful, and the earlier the better,” says Evelyn Waiwaiole, executive director of the CCCSE.

Fengie Saintelus, a nursing student at Roxbury Community College in Boston, Mass., sits in the hall a few hours before an exam, May 8, 2017. She is in her first semester as a part-time student, studying for her second degree.
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The data – drawn from 61,000 community college students from 253 institutions, and transcript data of 17,000 students at 28 institutions nationwide – also revealed increased engagement for students with some full-time attendance:

  • More said they increased their collaboration with other students (52 percent versus 45 percent);
  • More said they used academic advising/career planning services sometimes or often (69 percent versus 62 percent.)
  • Fewer said they “never” talked about their career plans with an instructor or adviser (22 percent versus 30 percent)
  • Fewer said they never discussed readings or classes with instructors outside of class time (41 percent versus 50 percent.)

Of course many community college students – who are on the average 28 years old and often juggle family, work, and tight finances – are not in a position to be able to attend school full time. But the report recommends that community college advisers should at least introduce the idea of full-time attendance, asking all students one question straight off the bat: “Is there any way you could attend college full-time, even for one semester?”

Focus on full-time enrollment as a path to student success is one piece of a broader effort by community colleges to focus harder on student outcomes.

“For years, community colleges had been all about access,” says Dr. Waiwaiole, “[but then they] really began to say we need to be about access and student success.”

But not all educators agree that it’s full-time enrollment by itself that gives students what they need to get through school.

“Those who choose to enroll full time may have a host of characteristics that are associated with better college outcomes, for example [having] more resources, and should not be attributed to enrollment type per se,” says Michal Kurlaender, a professor of Education Policy at the University of California, Davis.

However, Dr. Kurlaender of the study, “ [it’s a] descriptive picture that suggests that enrollment full-time … is associated with lots of other positive behaviors.” 

For Saintelus, the student who made the switch from part-time to full-time studies, completing one degree led to another. After graduating from Norwalk in 2008, she transferred into a four-year program at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., for another two years. She graduated from Barry with a bachelor's degree in social work in 2010, and now is enrolled in a nursing program at Roxbury Community College in Boston.

She remembers that, back in 2006 when she switched from part- to full-time enrollment, she had to ask her supervisor at work for a new schedule that would allow her do all her work toward the end of the week.

It still wasn’t easy, she says, but it was worth it because it accelerated her through her degree, which gave her the confidence and put her in a financial position to go on to her second degree.

“If you have the support and you can go full-time, I absolutely encourage it,” says Saintelus. “It's not easy, but if you really want it, then you make it work.”