Only 37 percent of students who attend college part time earn a degree within six years, the nonprofit Center for American Progress (CAP) says. While student retention is a big issue for all colleges and universities, it’s especially challenging for community colleges, where three out of four students are enrolled part time. But an innovative approach taken by Bunker Hill Community College in Boston could encourage more part-time students to stay in school and finish their degree.
In the past, many student-retention efforts have focused on encouraging part-time students to take more credit hours per semester, so they can graduate sooner. But that’s not often possible for part-time students, many of whom have full-time jobs or other impediments to their education.
Bunker Hill Community College believes it has found an affordable way to improve part-time student retention by providing some important elements of a traditional college experience to students who often don’t get these, according to a CAP report. The college is doing this by extending its “learning community” model to part-time as well as full-time students.
Expanding the learning community
The idea of learning communities isn’t new. Typically, these involve having students work closely with a group of classmates in exploring “big questions” that resonate beyond the classroom, says the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which has identified learning communities as one of its “high-impact educational practices.”
But it’s rare to have part-time students engage in learning communities, which is what Bunker Hill Community College is doing.
Bunker Hill offers three types of learning communities. All are directed to first-year students, whether they are attending the college full or part time. All of the courses are designed to build a stronger sense of community by engaging students with class discussions, group projects, and off-campus trips—and many of the courses support students with peer mentors and coaches as well.
- Learning Community Seminars are interdisciplinary seminars in which students get additional support from a peer mentor who is a fellow Bunker Hill student and an academic success coach from the college advising staff.
- Learning Community Clusters involve a group of students taking two classes together in the same semester. The instructors for these courses work with each other to link their material around common themes. Some of these clusters also include peer mentors and success coaches.
- Professional Studies Learning Community Seminars target students majoring in pre-professional fields such as nursing, business, or IT. As with the regular seminars, a success coach and a peer mentor work with students as well.
The importance of community
Because part-time students spend less time on campus, they are not as likely to form friendships, get to know instructors, or visit an academic advising center, says the CAP report. These kinds of relationships play a pivotal role in boosting student retention, and the learning-community approach aims to foster them.
“Sometimes part-time students just come in, come to class, and leave. Even when I did that as [a new] student, it was detrimental,” part-time student and peer mentor Selene Ludovici told CAP. “I didn’t get to know people. Building that network has been the most beneficial thing to me.”
Part-time students who participate in the college’s learning communities are seven percent more likely to graduate than those who don’t take part, data show. That’s about the same success rate as full-time students, six percent of whom are more likely to graduate after participating in learning communities.
To learn more about Bunker Hill Community College’s innovative approach, you can read the full CAP report here.