Community colleges provide an open door — to failure and debt, argues Community Colleges and the Access Effect by Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson. Scherer, an English professor at St. Louis Community College, specializes in developmental education. Anson, a former remedial writing instructor, runs the University of Iowa’s Upward Bound Project.
Poorly prepared students have little chance of success, write Scherer and Anson. Raising admissions requirements would strengthen academic classes for prepared students and protect the unprepared from debt.
Open-door admissions can perpetuate inequity, the authors tell Inside Higher Ed‘s Paul Fain in an e-mail interview. One mentors a a brain-damaged young man who was shot in the head when he was 16. He enrolled in community college, failed all his courses and went into debt that made him ineligible for a job training program. He works part-time for $7.35 an hour.
As students’ skills and ability levels declined, community colleges designed lengthy remedial sequences, Scherer and Anson write. Some “credit-bearing coursework . . . is equal to standard kindergarten fare.”
The national college completion agenda movement is threatening academic standards, they charge. Advocates also blame remedial courses for high failure rates, ignoring “the monumental impact of academic preparation, aptitude and student motivation on completion.”
The rise of performance-based funding puts more pressure on community colleges to lower standards in order to raise completion rates, they add. That will make community college graduates unemployable in a competitive workforce.
“Reasonable entrance standards, coupled with a more compassionate approach to advising and enrolling community college students” will help students succeed, they argue.
Some current degree-seeking students would thrive more — completion-wise and financially — in apprenticeships and job-training programs than they would in traditional two- or four-year degree programs.
Some are in desperate need of short-term training programs to financially stabilize them so that one day they might return and succeed in a more traditional degree program. Instead of repeatedly enrolling in and failing developmental education coursework aimed at eventually qualifying students for college-level coursework, many persons with intellectual disabilities, for example, are truly in need of affordable postsecondary programs to assist them in developing a career plan and independent living skills, including learning to manage their money and their personal safety and health, for example.
A few community colleges now require students to test at the seventh-grade level or above.
Community colleges are about second chances, responds Matt Reed. We don’t know who will take advantage of the opportunity before they try. And the alternatives for students who are turned away are very bleak.
“The higher education system is . . . a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations,” concludes Separate and Unequal, a new report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Since 1995, 82 percent of new white enrollments have gone to the most selective colleges, while 72 percent of new Hispanic enrollment and 68 percent of new African-American enrollment have gone to the two-year open-access schools.
The selective colleges spend two to almost five times as much on instruction per student as the open-access community colleges.
More than 30 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics with a high school grade point average (GPA) higher than 3.5 go to community colleges, where graduation rates are lower; 22 percent of whites with the same GPA go to community colleges. High-achieving minority students who go to open-access colleges are half as likely to graduate as those who enroll in more selective institutions, the report found.
Threatened with losing accreditation, Pima Community College is expected to open admission to all students, reversing a policy that sent very poorly prepared students to alternative programs. Accreditors also criticized the Arizona college’s leadership problems, including mismanagement by past and present administrators, a “culture of fear” and an allegedly absentee governing board, reports Inside Higher Ed. In addition, Roy Flores, Pima’s former chancellor, has been accused of sexual harassment.
Eager for Pima to become a four-year college, Flores pushed through tighter admissions standards, arguing that students who test below the seventh grade in reading and math “have little chance of succeeding in a college environment,” Only 5 percent of students in remedial classes advance to college-level work, Flores wrote in the Arizona Star.
The accreditation team said that caused Pima to fail an accreditation test: The “institution’s mission demonstrates commitment to the public good.”
“The college’s decision to change its admissions policy despite community opposition conflicts with its stated mission of developing the community through learning,” wrote Sylvia Manning, the commission’s president, “and demonstrates a lack of understanding of its role in serving the public good in its community.”
In 2011, Pima began turning away students who scored poorly on a placement test, ACT’s COMPASS. The number of full-time remedial students declined by 30 percent that year, leading to a 28 percent cut in faculty slots.
The college’s leadership has recommended that the new admissions standards be dropped.
A high school diploma isn’t enough to qualify for a decent job, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs a bachelor’s degree to earn a living, writes Thomas Snyder, president of Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College. Students need to know there’s a third track to job opportunities: Earn a vocational certificate or associate degree at a low-cost community college.
In 2010-11, entry-level workers with an associate degree earned more than those with a recent bachelor’s degree in 38 of 92 Indiana counties, he writes. (That’s because associate degrees in nursing and other health fields pay quite well immediately.)
Community colleges, affordable and open to all, offer “our best chance of improving the skills of a critical mass of U.S. workers,” Snyder writes. Young people need to understand their full range of options.
A more diverse population will see higher education as within their reach. More employment candidates will emerge, leading to greater economic growth. Our economy will benefit further from lower levels of student debt and higher earnings. Best of all, we will give middle class families hope for a brighter future even when the four-year residential college experience is impractical or out of their reach.
“Two-track vision” isn’t enough to close the skills gap, Snyder concludes.
With more students and fewer dollars, community colleges are struggling to maintain open access, concludes a survey of community college directors released this week by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. That will affect the president’s ambitious plans to expand the number of Americans with college degrees. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
President Obama has put community colleges at the center of his higher-education agenda, but the push has done little to secure more state money for the institutions. Last year community colleges reported more midyear budget cuts than any other public higher-education sector. Just six of 29 respondents reported that their states fully financed their community-college formulas, the lowest of any year of the survey.
Budget cuts of 2 percent are expected for community colleges in 22 states; 35 states project an 9 percent rise in enrollment. Tuition is likely to go up, creating access problems for some students.
“There is a lot of uncertainty across the states,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, a professor of higher education and director of the Education Policy Center and co-author of the report. “At the same time, there has been little long-term planning. The primary strategy appears to be: Pray, and hope for a state-revenue rebound.”
One third of respondents said their community colleges don’t have the capacity to educate the current numbers of high-school graduates nor future graduates.
Colleges won’t be able to meet the president’s college-completion goal, said Janice Friedel, co-author of the study, in a conference call. “How can you increase graduation rates without more capacity?”
To meet growing demand at community colleges and state universities, California’s higher education system should expand online classes, urges a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
With very high demand for nursing training, some community colleges are admitting only the best students instead of using wait lists or lotteries, reports Inside Higher Ed. That’s increasing graduation rates.
Southern State Community College in Ohio will use grades and entrance exam scores to admit nursing students. Currently, students with a minimum 2.5 GPA who’ve completed math and science prerequisites are placed on a long waiting list. Only 62 percent of those admitted graduate in two years; 75 percent pass the licensing exam on their first try. Other Ohio community colleges increased success rates when they switched to competitive admissions and Southern State hopes to do the same, says Julianne Krebs, director of nursing.
“Right now we may have a student who walks in with a 4.0 but cannot get into the program because of where they are on the wait list,” Krebs said. “I think it’s fair to put them at the head of the line. There’s a lot of correlation between overall GPA and grades in science classes and success in nursing programs. We want the most highly qualified nurses to graduate from our program.”
“It’s no advance to let in all comers and then have 50 percent or less of them graduate,” says Patricia Benner, professor emerita at the University of California at San Francisco School of Nursing and lead author of a recent Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching study on nursing credentials.
California community colleges, which used to choose by lottery among minimally qualified students, now admits applicants with the highest grades.
“Community colleges with as high as 50-70 percent drop-out rates moved to accepting the students with the highest grades in prerequisites, or at least a minimal grade of B,” Benner explained. “This lowered the failure rates, repeat course rates, and the drop-out rates. … It is expensive to take students who are likely to fail and/or drop out. Saddleback Community College nursing program in Southern California near [Los Angeles] is my prime example of this policy. They have a high completion rate, and they also have 100 percent pass rates for the nursing licensing exams.”
Some community college nursing programs still offer open access — for those who are willing to wait. Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, now sets aside 25 percent of nursing slots for highly qualified students, but believes the rest of the nursing program should remain open access “to maintain a diversity of students, based on a range of factors including socioeconomic status and race.”