When one more class can make a difference


A new report is refocusing attention on how helping part-time students take full-time course loads can significantly improve their chances of completion.

The report by Ad Astra compares part-time and full-time students as those who are respectfully “walking” and “jogging” toward completion. Generally, “students who were jogging versus walking are 7x more likely to graduate,” it says. Another way to put it: Students completing 11 or fewer credits per year had only a 7% probability of graduating.

The report notes the challenges that many students face in adding one more course per semester. But there are also institutional issues that create completion barriers for students, such as course requirements for pathways programs that are not readily available when students need them and inconsistent schedules.

“By failing to provide consistent, reliable schedules, institutions create unintended barriers for their students,” the report says. “Perhaps even the most sobering finding in this study is that more than half (57%) of the students analyzed can’t complete their degree without a major detour.”

The study is based on 2023 benchmarking data from Ad Astra partners representing more than 1.3 million students, including part-time and full-time students from two-year public, four-year public and four-year private institutions.

Promising practices

The report cites examples where “intentionality, data and design” have resulted in significant progress for students. Some of the colleges in the study reduced the number of students in “blocked completion paths” to fewer than 30%. Germanna Community College in Virginia, for example, revised its scheduling and added more clarity to its pathways approach to better match what students needed. The ensuing results included a 5% decrease in time-to-degree, 12% increase in productive credit hours and 21.5% decrease in credits-to-degree.

Some higher education institutions, especially public two-year institutions, are using shorter academic terms that allow students to make full-time progress while taking fewer courses at the same time. For example, they can stack two courses each eight-week term instead of four courses during a 16-week semester, the report says.

“Institutions aggressively moving to this model are seeing promising outcomes,” it says. “Course loads and DFW rates improved, leading to better overall progress and outcomes.”

Odessa College in Texas is one of the colleges having success with this model. The shift from 16- to eight-week terms has resulted in a 13% increase in overall enrollment, 26% increase in FTE enrollment and a doubling of completion rates to 42%.

The report also observes that strategic management of low-enrollment academic programs can dramatically improve financial sustainability. This includes offering only sustainable completion paths.

“On average, 51% of all degree-seeking students are pursuing degrees in an institution’s five most popular programs,” it says. “Yet these programs only make up 7% of all programs at an institution. This underscores a need to prudently manage lower-enrollment programs, which typically make up most of an institution’s portfolio.”

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