The Wrong End of the Equation: Community College Access Effect

Juliet Lilledahl and Mirra Leigh Anson’s Community Colleges and the Access Effect: Why Open Admissions Suppresses Achievement is a puzzling book. The authors, who have direct experience working with developmental education students, argue that tightening admission and financial aid standards at community colleges would improve achievement at all levels. The book is chock full of observations about how our current system is inefficient and ineffective, from the interaction of community colleges and financial aid to problems with ABT (Ability to Benefit – the way that higher education can serve students who do not have a high school diploma but could benefit from job/career training). Missing from the book, though, is a big picture appreciation of what community colleges can do to meet the needs of their communities. Frustration – a common enough sentiment in development education – may have gotten the better of their judgment. Quite simply, their vision for the future of community colleges is at odds with the basic mission and function of community colleges.

Community College Access Effect

Scherer is an English professor at St. Louis Community College and Anson is director of a TRIO program at the University of Iowa. They write about unmotivated students, students who coast because too easily garnered financial aid and community college are always there for them. They believe that a heavy-handed focus on completion leads to a lowering of academic standards. All of these problems can and do exist, and the authors are right to rail against them. But the shortcomings of a particular community college or student at a particular time are not the same as systemic failure with open access.

Scherer and Anson complicate their narrative by examining all manner of issues: poor accountability models, decreased funding, influence by foundations, overzealous disability centers, and badly administered financial aid awards. The authors believe that too many students in developmental education are awarded financial aid erroneously. They see the dangers of over-enrollment at community colleges by students who they believe will never move out of developmental education.

The authors’ solution – raise admissions standards – presumes that progress cannot be made with developmental education. They are ready to reshape community colleges into two-year institutions with the same standards and mission as four-year institutions. The solution, therefore, begs the question: why have community colleges at all? Why not simply encourage more public four-year institutions to offer associates degrees?

The answer to that question – and missing from this book – is the value of being open and democratic to all. This is not to advocate for the abandonment of standards. Rather, it is to claim that some institutions are so committed to serving all the public that they are open to all. Most public services – from housing assistance to transportation – are easier to develop, implement, and run when the public has limited access and government controls access. Ease, however, does not make it right. Convenience is no reason to abandon values.

A fundamental question is whether we believe that a high school graduate – who wants to pursue an associate’s degree, who is able to devote time and energy to their education, and is properly advised to match degree program with interests and ability – can complete an associates degree. I very much believe that the majority of students can do so. It is our responsibility, in education and in the community college world, to create environments, processes, and mechanisms, to see that happen.

We can do better. Systems matter.

Scherer and Anson have compiled a worthy series of faults, shortcomings and problems with current community college practice. Their solution to these issues, however, is no solution at all.

David Potash

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