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Part-Time Undergraduates in Postsecondary Education: 200304 Postsecondary Education Descriptive Analysis Report


After dramatic growth between 1970 and 1990, part-time students have formed a large and stable segment of the undergraduate population in U.S. postsecondary institutions (Hussar 2005). In fall 2004, approximately 5.5 million undergraduates were enrolled part time, making up 37 percent of the undergraduate enrollment in all degree-granting postsecondary institutions (U.S. Department of Education 2006). While part-time enrollment benefits postsecondary students in that it lowers their costs, increases their access, and offers them more flexibility, it provides no guarantee of academic success. In fact, part-time enrollment is often associated with certain behaviors (e.g., interrupting enrollment, working excessively) that may deter students from finishing their degree (Berkner, He, and Cataldi 2002; Carroll 1989; O’Toole, Stratton, and Wetzel 2003). Although it is difficult to determine whether the growth in part-time enrollment has brought about more benefits or limitations to individuals and institutions (Davies 1999; McCormick, Geis, and Vergun 1995), ongoing research on the associations between part-time enrollment and postsecondary outcomes helps advance our understanding of this issue.

This report uses data from the 2003–04 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:2004) to provide a profile of part-time undergraduates enrolled in U.S. postsecondary institutions in 2003–04. It also uses longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample in the 1996/01 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:96/01) to examine associations between part-time enrollment and education outcomes (i.e., persistence and degree completion) 6 years after beginning postsecondary education.

While providing an overall picture of part-time students, this report also takes a closer look at a subgroup of part-time students who exhibited some characteristics commonly found among full-time students. A relevant question is why these students chose to attend part time even though they may have been able to attend full time given their characteristics. Although this report cannot fully address this question, a descriptive look at this subgroup helps determine whether and how these students behaved differently from their full-time counterparts and other part-time peers in postsecondary education and what factors were related to degree completion. The major findings of this report are summarized below. It should be noted, however, that these findings are descriptive in nature and do not demonstrate causality.