Mixed Enrollment Status: Favorable for Non-First-Time Student Degree Completion

By Katherine Saunders

The traditional 18-year-old high school graduate enrolling full time at a university no longer represents the majority of college students. Today’s non-traditional students are entering, or returning, to postsecondary education older, with families and jobs, and with varying degrees of enrollment intensity. In 2012, 51 percent of undergraduate students were independent, 40 percent were age 25 or older, 15 percent were single parents, and 37 percent were enrolled part-time. A new national study on the enrollment and persistence of non-first-time students (NFT) conducted by a group of higher education organizations[1], indicates that when NFT students combine periods of part-time and full-time enrollment, they are less likely to drop out and are more likely to complete an associate’s degree, compared to exclusively part-time students.

Adult students who return to postsecondary education typically balance work, family, school, and other obligations. The ability to mix their enrollment status provides the flexibility to persist through their education while tending to other responsibilities. More than half of undergraduate students mix full- and part-time enrollment throughout the course of their programs. This type of enrollment is especially more common, and more beneficial, for students attending two-year programs and institutions.

According to the study, of the NFT students who re-entered college between August 15, 2005 and August 14, 2008, 16 percent with mixed enrollment completed their associate’s degree, compared to only 7 percent who enrolled exclusively part-time and 10 percent who enrolled exclusively full-time. At the baccalaureate level or higher, while students who enrolled exclusively full-time fared better than students with mixed enrollment (34 percent compared to 25 percent, respectively), students who enrolled a mixture of full and part-time fared  significantly better than students who enrolled exclusively part-time (25 percent compared to 7 percent, respectively). For adult students who do not have the time or financial resources to continuously enroll full-time at either two-year or four-year institutions, these findings prove that mixing their enrollment status provides them with a better outcome then solely attending part-time.

This study highlights the need for discussions and decisions around financing higher education for working adults at the state and national levels. In comments to the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, CLASP provided several recommendations focused on increasing college affordability for low-income, adult students. CLASP recommends preserving continuous student aid eligibility for students who mix enrollment over the course of their college program, including when they attend less than half-time.

To supplement the unmet costs of higher education, a growing number of undergraduates work while in college, with 39 percent working part-time and 27 percent working full-time. Working while in school may require periods of reduced enrollment, and grants during these periods of lower enrollment intensity help these students maintain momentum to complete their degrees and avoid dropping out entirely due to financial circumstance. According to research from the Community College Research Center, students who maintain “consecutive enrollment” are more likely to complete a credential, and the frequency at which a student switches between part-time and full-time enrollment “does not appear to be detrimental”.

When non-first-time students mix their enrollment, they are more likely to complete their degree. As research continues to support the conclusion that mixed enrollment supports completion, Congress should use this as a guide to pursue policies that preserve student aid for those who attend a mix of full- and part-time enrollment while in school. Adopting these policies would support the national college completion goals and help more low-income, working students earn postsecondary education and credentials necessary to enter the middle class and obtain sustainable, living wages.   

[1] The higher education organizations involved in this study include the American Council on Education, InsideTrack, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), and the National Student Clearinghouse.