Increasing Enrollment Intensity as a Strategy to Spur Completion

Taking more classes can help students graduate faster.

College students today have a lot going on in their lives. Nearly 70 percent of community college students work, and almost one-third have dependent children. With a growing number of programs encouraging full-time study or offering incentives to encourage students to take fifteen credits per term (i.e., “15 to Finish” programs), it’s worth investigating how enrollment intensity is related to student success and, if so, how to use that knowledge to better support students who are working to juggle multiple commitments. The reality is that while some students can consistently study full time and thereby increase their chances of sticking around and graduating, this simply isn’t possible for a subset of today’s students. How should college leaders and policymakers solve this question?

A recent report from Civitas Learning found that adding one more class per term was positively correlated with persistence. The study found that the greatest increase in persistence (nearly 15 percent) was associated with students at community colleges who took two classes instead of only one. Policy discussions about increasing enrollment intensity usually center on moving a student up to 12 hours, the most common definition of full time study and the enrollment intensity at which eligible students qualify as full time to receive the maximum Pell grant allowance. We don’t often discuss encouraging students who only take one class to try two instead, but Civitas Learning’s findings suggest that simply encouraging students to try six hours instead of three could improve persistence and academic progress. According to the study, students who increased the number of classes from two classes to three, or from three to four, etc. still saw a bump in persistence, though the degree of the correlation was smaller for each higher number of classes.

While the new research from Civitas Learning focuses on enrollment intensity within one term, additional research on enrollment intensity patterns over three terms, published by the Center on Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas-Austin, showed that over one third of survey respondents who had been enrolled for at least three terms had some experience with both part time and full time enrollment. Instead of strictly categorizing students as part time or full time, the authors say, it’s important to remind ourselves that students’ lives and, therefore, enrollment patterns may change along with their lives and the many life responsibilities they bear. CCCSE found that students who attended full time, even for just one term, had better outcomes on several measures: engagement, passing gateway classes in English and math, persistence, and graduation.

CCCSE’s findings corroborate the findings in a joint ACCT and TICAS report. “Aiding Success: The Role of Federal and State Financial Aid in Supporting California’s Community Colleges,” published earlier this year . In our research, we discovered that California community college students with mixed enrollment intensity—some part time and some full time—were 27 percent more likely to graduate or transfer than peers who only studied part time, and that they were slightly more likely (3 percent) than students in their cohort who only studied full time. While this was not an intentional focus of our study, this association suggests that full-time study appears again to have a positive influence on completion, and students who can only enroll full time occasionally still seem to benefit.

Asking community college students, most of whom work and many of whom care for dependents, to study full time or to take 15 credits each and every semester may be unrealistic for many reasons, from financial and time constraints to competing responsibilities. Likewise, pushing students to make a leap from quarter- or half-time to full-time study may be too demanding a leap for some students. It’s important for college leaders to advocate for and to enact policies that honor students’ multiple commitments while working to ensure that students have the financial resources to support full time attendance. Students’ respective abilities to study full time or part time may well change along with their respective life circumstances and resources. Our students deserve policies that fit their lives and needs and which support them as they learn and grow in our institutions.

With findings from recent research on enrollment intensity in mind, here are a few questions campus leaders and policymakers may want to ask:

-      How can we leverage federal and state financial aid to encourage students to enroll full time in as many classes as they can, without penalizing students who occasionally need to attend part-time?

-      What factors influence students’ decisions to enroll full time or part time at your institution, and how can the institution best meet the students where they are in terms of the time and resources they can devote to school?

-      It is possible that your institution may offer resources that would assist students in meeting needs that prohibit them from increasing their course loads, and that students are unaware of those resources. (This is particularly likely among the most burdened—and likely part time—students.) What does your institution do to ensure that all students are aware of available resources that might help them persist at a faster rate?

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