work college balance

Juggling College and Work

Today’s student entering college is facing a 1 in 2 chance that they will not finish a bachelor’s degree within six years. That’s a 50% chance they will leave an institution with debt, credits that may not transfer, and without the degree needed to move to their career of choice. Many factors unique to individual students play a role.

However there are some common barriers to degree completion including learning models disconnected from student needs, insufficient full time attendance, financial aid requirements discouraging timely matriculation, and part-time student cohorts that are dropping out more often than graduating. To help students finish what they have started, colleges and universities are exploring new attendance models and retooling to the needs of the “new normal” learner. Low cost college credits from so-called “alternative credit providers” can furnish debt-free alternatives that supplement an institution’s own efforts to encourage timely degree completion.

Adult learners and working students who were previously considered “non-traditional” make up an increasingly growing share of college students. As of 2014, students 25 years of age and older were 31.3% of total college students enrolled and 49.2 % of part-time enrollees. Furthermore, more than 70% of college students work while attending school, and more than a quarter of students are working full-time while attending college. This student population, juggling work and in many cases, family responsibilities as well, are fast becoming the “new normal” as opposed to the on-campus full-time student of the past. These students have more constraints on their time and finances than ever before, and need more flexible learning models that are available anytime and anywhere at an affordable price.

Several issues prevent many full time college students from earning their degree. First, many students who enroll take too few credits to finish in a timely manner. Twelve credits is considered full-time for financial aid purposes. Based on the standard 120 credit degree program, freshman students earning only 12 credits per semester throughout their college career stay six credits behind pace per year, compared to peers taking 15 credits per semester. At that rate, at the end of four years, minimum full time attendance (12 credits per semester) results in a credit deficit of 24 credits, or at least an extra year of study, which causes far too many to finish well beyond four years, if they finish at all. At they note that many that do make up this ground must take on extra debt to do so.

Part-time students actually fare much worse concerning degree completion, as they are more likely to drop out than to finish their degree within six years. Per a National Student Clearinghouse study, nearly 70% of students who are enrolled as “exclusively part-time” had dropped out within six years. Degree completion rates are also the lowest for this group, only finishing degrees at about 17% within six years.

To address these issues, many colleges and universities are smartly beefing up their academic counseling services to better advise students on how to stay on track. Additionally, some institutions are implementing success coaches to attempt to bolster completion rates. These types of programs can likely be helpful, but may not be enough to boost completion levels to where they should be for accredited institutions. Support can come from outside the institution as well as the inside.

College Review at mentions that an innovative and low cost approach to help students earn their degrees is to offer more opportunities to earn and transfer more prior learning credits into their degree programs. Alternative Credit providers, particularly those which use Open Educational Resources (OER) are especially well-equipped to address the needs of adult learners. Alternative credits provide flexible learning paths with 24/7 learning opportunities, credentialing prior knowledge and work experience, and encouraging self-paced scholarship. Allowing students to take alternative credit courses as either part of their “15 to finish” during the year, or to incorporate it as prior learning, will increase graduation rates and not require students to take on additional debt.

Using available credit alternatives and re-thinking attendance and scheduling considerations; colleges can inexpensively retool credit models to suit “traditional” and “new normal” learners alike. Historically traditional and new normal learners benefit when higher education institutions accept and promote alternative credit options that are always available, faculty reviewed, and low cost. Students who are able to transfer competency-based learning or prior learning or are much more likely to graduate than their peers without prior learning credit, as demonstrated by a CAEL study on transfer credit and degree completion rates.

In addition to increasing graduation rates, alternative credit allows financial-aid dependent students and others to earn credit toward degrees without accruing additional debt. Alternative credit acceptance, implemented with degree completion pathways in mind, serves both students and institutions alike.