If you think part-time students don't work as hard, think some more

Jose Leonardo Santos
Jose Leonardo Santos: The status-quo culture of college locks out students who need opportunities and rewards those whose parents can send them to school.
Photo courtesy Jose Leonardo Santos

By Jose Leonardo Santos

Jose Leonardo Santos is an anthropologist and assistant professor of social science at Metropolitan State University.

When I became a professor, in Dallas, I noticed differences among students immediately. There is a sea of disinterested young faces in a culture of the status quo. For many, college is just an extension of high school. Why go to college? Because they were supposed to. Some of them have ideas of what they want to "be" after graduation; many don't.

I noticed another group: not disinterested, but determined. These students knew exactly why they were in college. They wanted more than just grades. They wanted to "get it." They wanted their money's worth. That's not measured in grades, but in useful knowledge. These were working adults. Not kids looking for a high GPA. Men and women, working toward a better life.

Their grades were not stellar. I peppered their papers with red ink. Strangely, they didn't get mad. They wanted to understand why. They actually came to my office. By the end of the course, their grades improved drastically. And if they didn't get A's, I wasn't too worried. These people didn't need A's. They'd learned to make it, no matter what.

Earlier this month, MPR News carried a story about part-time students. Working students get less support per hour from the state than full-timers. It's assumed working students have gobs of dough to spend on tuition. Also, as Director Larry Pogemiller of the Office of Higher Education says, "[Y]ou get higher attainment the more credits you take in a shorter period of time." Full-time students get more degrees, faster.

Why? Part-time students take longer. They work for a living. Many of them are parents. They aren't seeking degrees because the culture of college tells them to; their goal is to build better lives. That takes more time and money, not less.

Obligating them to pay more for school overlooks why they enrolled. Many were earning too little. They can't leave their jobs, so part-time status is their path. They take classes, take time off, then start again. That's the sort of thing you have to do when you start a new job, or your kid starts a new school, or when you need to work overtime to pay medical bills.

These aren't rare cases. "Nontraditional" students are increasingly the new tradition. Forty-seven percent of postsecondary students are now 24 or older, married, responsible for dependents, orphans or veterans. Full-time school demands as much as a job. Hours are spent in class, reading, slaving at assignments, studying for finals and working on projects. Those with the resources to do that 40 hours a week are becoming rare. Working students are America's future.

The status-quo culture of college is unfair. It locks out students who need opportunities and it rewards those whose parents can send them to school. It gets students in and out like an assembly line. Often, students attain their degrees with no clue of why they went to school at all.

I left Dallas looking for more of the "determined" students. I found them in Minnesota. They work hard, they raise their kids, and they manage to crawl to class at night. Now, my average students are in their 30s. My oldest are in their 70s.

In a college setting like that, everyone is teaching, not just the Ph.Ds. My students have taught me the current approach is wrong. Working students need more, not less.

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