The ‘when and how’ of baccalaureate programs


Students seeking to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program face many challenges, whether they are entering a college or university directly from high school, transferring to a college or university after completion of an associate degree at a community college, or entering college or university as a working adult.

These challenges are inter-related, and many have been well-documented, including the rising cost of a baccalaureate education (how much), the problems that place-based students face in accessing colleges or universities that may be outside reasonable commuting distance (how far), and the accessibility of baccalaureate institutions to racially minoritized and other under-represented students (for whom). The research we have conducted as part of our case-making project for the community college baccalaureate (CCB) has focused on the impact of these challenges on community college students who are seeking a bachelor’s degree at a state university or other four-year institution.

The full research paper is available through the Illinois Community College Trustees Association.

Another potential barrier that is less documented is the impact of “when and how” instruction is provided by universities and other baccalaureate-granting institutions. To what extent might the times and modes of instruction (i.e., in-person, online, hybrid, etc.) be a barrier to enrollment and completion for transferring community college students who are seeking a bachelor’s degree at a state university or other four-year institution? In other words, if instruction at universities and other four-year institutions is much more likely to require in-person, weekday attendance than corresponding instruction at community colleges, it would be reasonable to consider whether these differences might create an additional barrier, especially for working students, who face the most substantial scheduling challenges.

Info on working students

The data suggest that community college students are more likely to be working than their four-year college and university counterparts. Nearly one-third (31.4%) of all community college students were working full-time while enrolled during the 2015-16 academic year, according to an American Association of Community Colleges analysis of data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. One out of every five community college students attending full-time (20.6%) were employed full-time, another 41.2% of full-time students worked part-time, while the remaining 38.2% of full-time students were not employed while attending community college. 

Part-time students were even more likely to be employed (37.5% full-time and 33.6% part-time). By contrast, only 8.6% of full-time students attending public four-year colleges were employed full-time, though many four-year college students were working part-time.

These results are similar to the 2022 estimates of employment status derived from the Current Population Survey and recently released in the Digest of Education Statistics. The data suggest that full-time community college students are more likely than their four-year peers to be working more than 20 hours per week, and far more likely to be working 35 or more hours per week.

What we examined

To assess the differences in times and modes of instruction, we selected a sample of state universities and community colleges in Illinois, using three of the top four university/community college dyads based on dyad bachelor’s completion rates, published by the U.S. Department of Education. (A dyad is a pairing of a single community college and a single four-year institution where there is a substantial number of students transferring from the community college to the four-year institution.)

We selected three of the four top dyads for the state on the principle that these are the “best case” situations for successful transfer and degree completion, based on their transfer throughput values. There are, of course, numerous factors influencing transfer success, but focusing on the top dyads supports comparisons where there is an established relationship between the community college and the university.

We then selected program areas of study widely used in states that permit community colleges to confer the baccalaureate, and two of the three (computer science and engineering technology) have been program areas of focus in our previous supply and demand research in Illinois. In addition, all six institutions in our sample offered programs of study in all three areas, including community college programs leading to certificates and associate degrees and university programs leading to a bachelor’s degree.  

Next, we reviewed publicly accessible class schedules for the Spring 2024 semester. From these websites, we collected the course name, section number, mode of instruction, day of week, time of day and location. Data were gathered from 593 class sections.

What we discovered

There were substantial differences between community colleges and universities in the modes of instruction provided and the times in which in-person instruction was provided (See graph, below). The modal value for the three universities was in-person instruction during a weekday, at 59%, with hybrid (in-person and online) at a distant 12%. The modal value for the three community colleges was asynchronous online (34%), followed closely by in-person weekday (27%) and hybrid (23%).

Synchronous online was not used as a mode of instruction by any of the community college classes in our sample but was used for 9% of the university class sample. While neither type of institution provided many in-person evening or weekend classes, community colleges were twice as likely to do so as the universities in our sample (14% and 7%, respectively).

These differences in the modes and times of instruction exist across program categories. For computer science programs, for example, community colleges offered 58.5% of their class sections via asynchronous online mode, but universities offered this mode of instruction for only 2.1% of these class sections. While 49.2% of community college engineering technology class sections were offered in-person during the day, the highest use of this mode across all community college programs, 23.7% of class sections for this program were offered in-person in the evening, and 22% were offered via hybrid modes. The corresponding values for the university engineering technology programs were 67.9%, 5.1% and 7.7%.

What the results suggest

If the class schedules for the observed programs are representative of class schedules generally for the selected institutions, then there are very large differences between these universities and their associated community colleges in the times and modes of instruction. Further, the times and modes of instruction offered by these universities could be a substantial barrier to enrollment and completion of a bachelor’s degree for those students who must work, and especially so for those students who must work full-time.

In contrast, the class schedules for the community colleges offered a more balanced array of choices in times and modes of instruction and are therefore likely to be more accommodating to the needs of working students. This is not a surprising result, given the employment status of community college students as described above.  

Current research supports the idea that these differences can be determinative for many students. For the recently published State of Higher Education Report 2024, Gallup and the Lumina Foundation surveyed 14,000 working-age U.S. adults with a high-school diploma who were either enrolled in postsecondary education, had stopped out of postsecondary education, or had never enrolled in any type of postsecondary education. Among the respondents who were not currently enrolled, 77% cited “work conflicts or the need to work” as a reason for not enrolling, exceeded only by “the cost of the degree or credential program” at 85%.

Among respondents without a college degree, 59% cited “having control over the days and times that you need to take classes” as an important characteristic for deciding the college where they might enroll, the third most important characteristic after “getting a good job,” and “the cost of the program” (68% and 66%, respectively). More than half (52%) also cited the “ability to take classes and complete your program remotely,” and the “distance between the campus and your home” as important characteristics for college selection.

The survey also provides evidence that these challenges related to the intersection of work demands and the requirements for class attendance have increased substantially as barriers to enrollment and completion from the 2022 to 2023 studies.  

Perceptions about easy access

Research conducted by Nicholas Hillman, and expanded on in our work in Illinois and other states, has focused on the critical role of place in the likelihood of enrollment and completion of a bachelor’s degree, and the existence of baccalaureate “education deserts” in rural areas of many states. While prospective baccalaureate students may not live in an education desert, in that bachelor’s degree programs may exist within accessible commuting distances, they may still encounter an “opportunity mirage” if these class schedules and delivery modes for these programs are not accessible to working students.

Since two out of three community college students are employed, the scheduling of college courses is an important component of program accessibility. The class sections, whether in-person or synchronous online, must be offered at times during which working students can attend. The asynchronous online format may be an acceptable alternative, but for some courses (e.g. engineering technology in this study) this may not be a practical option.

Caveats and limitations

There are several limitations and caveats to this preliminary study. First, the findings are limited to the three colleges and three universities studied, and to courses in the three program areas selected for study. Other programs may be more oriented toward working students (e.g., a BSN completion program for practicing nurses), and other institutions may place a stronger emphasis on serving working students. Though there is no reason to imagine that these colleges and universities are unusual among their peers in their overall design of course offerings, additional institutions and programs of study would have to be examined to establish this.

Second, this is an analysis of class schedules for a single semester. Examining additional semesters would help determine if the times and modes of instruction have changed over time, and to what extent.

Third, these data have not been examined to determine if multiple sections of a given course are being offered across a range of times and modes that would make attendance more feasible for working students.

Finally, no attempt has been made to distinguish between courses in a program of study that are required for graduation vs. those that are elective.

The Joyce Foundation supported this research, which included assistance from Jim Reed, executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, Debra Bragg of Bragg & Associates and Maria Harmon.

About the Author

Tim Harmon
Tim Harmon is president of Workforce Enterprise Services, Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on postsecondary education and workforce program improvement.
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