As colleges seek to improve graduation rates, many have focused on increasing the number of students enrolled full time. New data from the US Department of Education show that students at California’s public colleges and universities who first enroll on a full-time basis are much more likely to graduate within six years than students who first enroll part time. These higher graduation rates are observed both for first-time freshmen and for transfer students.
Full-time enrollment varies widely across California’s public systems of higher education. Students at California State University (CSU) and the University of California (UC) are overwhelmingly full time, whereas most students at the community colleges enroll part time. UC requires students to enroll full time (at least 12 units per semester) unless they receive approval for part-time status. Some CSU campuses recently started encouraging students to agree to take 15 units per semester (a full-time course load), as have some community colleges.
Full-time enrollment campaigns (frequently known as “15 to finish”) have been gaining traction across the country. In some states, such as Hawaii and Indiana, more students are completing 15 credits per semester and four-year graduation rates are rising. But messaging and financial incentives aren’t enough to help all part-time students make the transition to full-time enrollment. Community colleges enroll large numbers of nontraditional students who have significant work, family, and other outside obligations. Some of these students may not be able to enroll full time and/or may need holistic supports such as child care services and transportation subsidies in order to succeed. To the extent possible, the state and its higher education institutions should look for ways to help more students enroll full time so that they can progress toward graduation.