Widening the Door to Higher Education: The Continuing Growth in the Number of Part-Time Students Challenges Old Notions about Time to Degree

Article excerpt

Here is a modest proposal, and it's guaranteed to generate even more sensationalistic media coverage of higher education than we're currently subjected to. Let s eliminate part-time student enrollment. This will place all colleges and universities on a more level playing field. After all, 30 years ago, my university, Northeastern Illinois University, and many other regional public colleges and universities, enrolled primarily full-time students. These students were often the first in their families to attend college, they worked to earn spending money and they were mainly the sons and daughters of White ethnics. They graduated within four years and took jobs within the corporate sector, education and public service.

Today at NEIU, more than half of our approximately 12,000 undergraduates come from underrepresented groups--Hispanics, Blacks and Asians. Whites and Middle-Easterners comprise the remainder. We are one of the nation's top degree producers for Hispanics in the fields of education and computer science and in ethnic studies for African-Americans. These graduates go on to earn doctorates and teach all across the United States. But what is different about these students? They take longer to graduate because they are often poorer than their predecessors at NEIU. They also work more hours, support families and are generally older than the average student 30 years ago. These students say that paying for college is a worthwhile investment, but they must enroll part time.

Today's students, like those of the past, aspire to a better life, but rising expectations face off with ever shrinking resources in support of public higher education. There is an unwillingness in Illinois to provide the financial support to ensure student success. In fact, we can document outright hostility toward these aspirants.

The New York Times ran an article in September analyzing how long it takes students to earn a degree. The piece led with a recent effort, known as the Consortium Study, to analyze Chicago public high school graduates and their time to a university degree. This study assumes that students who graduate from Chicago public schools and who begin their college careers as full-time students continue on as full-time students. In fact, many of these students become part-time because of financial needs and in response to family and employment obligations. …