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part-time students
Victoria Dzindzichashvili attended college mostly part time and took 10 years to get her undergraduate degree. Now she is commuting to graduate school at Harvard. Credit: Photo by Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On her way to her master’s program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Victoria Dzindzichashvili pauses in the Harvard Square subway station and reflects on the decade it took her to get here.

Dzindzichashvili enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2005 after graduating from high school, commuting across the city from her family’s duplex in East Boston for class before heading home again to work at a law firm.

She transferred to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst a year later because she wanted to try the “traditional college thing” — dorms, dining halls and leafy quads.

Living away from home meant paying for housing on top of tuition, so she took a job wrapping candles at a candle factory. But the job paid just $7.25 an hour, and pretty soon she was broke. So after dropping out for a while, Dzindzichashvili returned to education part time.

It was another eight years before she finally earned her bachelor’s degree, on top of the two she’d already put in.

Dzindzichashvili’s slog through higher education is surprisingly common. Fewer than one in five students who enroll part time from the start at a four-year college have earned a degree eight years later, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Part-timers at community college fare even worse.

The reasons these students take so long to finish college, or drop out altogether, often come down to two factors: money and scheduling.  Many, like Dzindzichashvili, interrupt their studies because of the cost. Others find it nearly impossible to fit courses around work and childcare.

Related: Colleges provide misleading information about their costs

Part-time classmates who worked during the day, as she did, Dzindzichashvili said, constantly worried about whether courses would be available at night.

“Students like us were not the focus of the program,” she said. “A lot of us felt invisible.”

That’s starting to change as federal forecasts show part-time enrollment outpacing full-time enrollment through at least 2027 and other new figures shed light on how long it takes for part-time students to graduate. Colleges and states are realizing that they won’t meet their enrollment targets or improve the proportion of their residents with higher educations if they don’t pay more attention to this part of the student population.

More institutions are scheduling courses at the times when part-time students need them, rather than when it’s convenient for faculty. They’re extending support programs to part-time students that have been proven to improve results among full-time ones. Some states are opening up financial aid programs to part-time students who haven’t previously been eligible for them.

“A lot of us felt invisible.”

But on many college campuses in many states, part-time students remain an afterthought, even though part-timers now make up more than a quarter of students at four-year colleges, and close to two-thirds at community colleges. Many of the growing number of “free college” plans exclude part-time students, either to control costs or to encourage full-time enrollment.

In fact, administrators often encourage part-time students to “take their time,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. That, he said, “turns out to be very bad advice.” (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)

Related: Universities that are recruiting older students often leave them floundering

The longer students stay in school, the more likely they will face a family or financial crisis that will derail their ambitions, said Marcella Bombardieri, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress who wrote a report on part-timers.

Going slow means “there’s just more time for things to go wrong,” Bombardieri said.

Among other interventions, many colleges are getting behind a national campaign to simply persuade more part-time students to convert to full time.

That’s because attending college full time saves money, increases the odds of graduating, and lets students realize the financial benefits of their degrees sooner.

In Massachusetts, a program called Commonwealth Commitment offers students incentives to take a full credit load by freezing tuition for them and guaranteeing admission to a state college for any full-time community college student who maintains a 3.0 grade-point average. More than 1,000 students have taken the state up on the offer since it began three years ago.

But not every student can make the leap to full-time status, said Karen Stout, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Achieving the Dream; many have neither the money nor the time.

Related: Luxury private student housing further divides rich and poor on campuses

Though she’d like to see more part-time students do this, Stout said, “We will leave too many of our most vulnerable students behind if we only focus on that as the solution.”

Bunker Hill Community College in Boston is among the institutions starting to experiment with other solutions. Since 2013, it has required all students taking less than a full load of classes to also take a seminar that provides them with mentors and success coaches — a package of supports for which many didn’t otherwise have time.

The seminar covers themes relevant to students’ lives, with topics including hip hop and “The Immigrant Experience.” In doing so, it’s meant to offer something research shows is critical to retaining students: a sense of belonging.

Fewer than one in five students who enroll part time at a four-year college have earned a degree eight years later. Part-timers at community college fare even worse.

“Retention happens when students see echoes of their own life in their education,” said Pam Eddinger, the college’s president.

In a class titled “Finding your Future,” instructor Nichole Vatcher pressed students to consider their motivations for attending college. “God,” one answered. “Your parents,” said another.

Vatcher, a one-time academic advisor, said her goals are twofold: to help students find a fit in the major they choose and the job they want, and to create a community among them.

The seminars “make people feel connected to campus and each other in a way that other courses don’t,” she said. “I think that connection is what keeps them coming back.”

Related: College students are increasingly forgoing summers off to save money, stay on track

part-time students
Victoria Dzindzichashvili takes a break after class at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she’s just begun a master’s program after taking 10 years to get her undergraduate degree, mostly part time. Credit: Photo by Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

Early results are mixed: Part-time students who took the seminar last fall were 16 percentage points more likely to come back in the spring than those who didn’t. But the courses have had less impact on whether or not they actually graduate, and Eddinger acknowledged that “outcomes are still not great.”

“We’re not moving the needle in the way we need to,” she said.

Dzindzichashvili, meanwhile, is going to graduate school full time, covering the cost with a combination of loans and savings while still sharing a house with her parents.

She plans to use her Harvard degree to advocate for policy changes that will bring down the costs of college for future part-time students.

She is relishing attending school without working, Dzindzichashvili said — for the first time in her life.

“Everyone around me is overwhelmed,” she said, “and I feel like I’m on vacation.”

This story about part-time students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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