Part-time Students Are Not (Yet) The Majority

Right after I posted a screed about how some recent research about Twitter’s relationship with students’ grades has been misunderstood, along came another study that is being mischaracterized. I’m not looking for these things; I don’t want to be some kind of education research watchdog or bully. But this is important and I must speak up.

The demographics of U.S. college students are changing and too many of us are not changing our practices to match. Recently, Complete College America released a report focusing on these changing demographics with a specific focus on part-time students and the continued growth of non-traditional students. It focuses on some very important and often overlooked topics and it should elicit discussion and promote action.

Frustratingly, several of the media reports are misreporting what is in this study, particularly in their headlines and summaries. The study very explicitly says that “4 of every 10 public college students are able to attend only part-time” on its second page. So why are some reporters and commentators summarizing the report with headlines proclaiming that part-time students are the new majority? I can understand a relatively small shop making this mistake, particularly if they’re in a rush to try to get the word out about this important study and happy to make corrections. But why is the Washington Post getting it wrong and letting the error persist for days? And why are higher education professionals passing along this report with incorrect information, blindly repeating headlines and summaries that get it wrong?

(Not everyone is getting this wrong. For example, The Atlantic gets it just right.)

This is so frustrating to me because the topics discussed in this report are so important. Non-traditional students do make up the majority of students. The federal government does a poor job collecting information about these students by often focusing exclusively on first-time, first year students (which, coincidentally, was an issue I wrote about in my qualifying exam). Too many of us have tunnel vision and only focus on the students on our campus or – more accurately – the students we think are on our campus. In the context of student affairs, I worry particularly about the next generation of professionals and whether these demographic changes are being addressed in their coursework. My impression is that they are not; I hope I am wrong!