In December, I wrote a post about why the frequency of my writing slowed and would continue to slow. The explanation was simple: I had entered a doctoral program and was engaged in the final writing stage of my dissertation. I am pleased to say that I satisfactorily completed all the requirements for my doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania including defending my dissertation. Now that I have had a couple of weeks to savor the accomplishment, I am ready to resume some of my “free time” activities that I postponed or slowed in order to go back to school and earn my doctoral degree. As I begin to resume blog posts, I thought I would share my reflections on my area of studies.
When I completed my MBA from Tulane’s Freeman School of Business in 1978, I thought I had completed all of my formal academic studies. After graduation from Tulane, I sat for and passed the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) exam, the CMA (Certified Management Accountant), and the Fellow exam for the Healthcare Financial Management Association. Maintaining those certifications required annual continuing education hours, but not academic credits. Usually, I could earn 40 hours of credit per year by attending a couple of two day seminars along with a single day seminar.
Enrolling in Penn’s doctoral program in Higher Education Management put me in a position not too dissimilar from many of the students we serve at the American Public University System (APUS). I was working full-time, married, raising two children, and trying to balance those responsibilities with my class assignments. I couldn’t put class first by any means, but I also couldn’t neglect it unless I wanted to fail or drop out. I developed a system whereby I allocated time on weekends and evenings for completing assignments. This worked great as long as I didn’t have to change my work schedule or my class assignments. Whether it was a special project at work that caused me to work evenings and weekends to complete or a team assignment at school that couldn’t be completed during the times that I had open, those adjustments to my schedule created a temporary crisis in my patterns for completing my studies on time. Generally, the professors in the program at Penn were accommodating and I was able to stay on track. My wife was also understanding and allowed me to miss some of our family events in order to meet academic deadlines.
When I reflect on the circumstances that allowed me to complete my degree on time, I think of the wonderful support that I received from my professors, my wife, and my coworkers. Not all adult students are that fortunate. Some may be single parents and cannot ask a spouse to review the children’s homework while they’re in another room completing a paper or reading an assignment. Others may have a boss who is not supportive of them leaving work early to attend class or finish a paper that must be submitted at midnight. Students serving in the military may have to deploy or while deployed, leave on a several week mission that provides no down time for communicating with family much less working on college homework. Completing a degree at any level while you are working full time and raising a family is a major accomplishment; unfortunately, many of our nation’s policy makers completed their degrees as full time students and can’t appreciate the difficulties and the sacrifices that working adults who are part-time students have to make in order to progress toward graduation.
President Obama has stated that America needs to increase its percentage of college graduates. His initial focus has been to increase funding to community colleges. Those efforts won’t be enough. The federal student aid system has been designed primarily for full-time students. Better funding mechanisms for part-time students should be provided as well. The primary tracking system for federal student aid tracks the institutional graduation rates of first time, full-time students within a regular period of time (typically four years) and within 150 percent of that time and 200 percent of that time. Transfer students are not tracked at all. Part-time students carrying a course load of four courses per year will take 10 years to earn a baccalaureate degree if they never take a break from attending school. Very few people can go through a decade of life without some major event occurring that could interrupt their studies. Moreover, many people complete a couple years of college, drop out for various reasons, and then pick it back up again years later when they realize the importance of the degree for promotions and/or job opportunities. As a country, we are not tracking the successes of our part time, working adult students nor are we finding ways to improve those successes. Given the shrinking numbers of high school graduates who graduate from college in six years, I think it’s time that we examine ways in which we can enhance the educational success of our working adults.