The open-door policy at community colleges is unique in American higher education. It allows all comers—a retired grandmother, an Army veteran, a laid-off machinist—to learn a skill or get a credential. That broad access—the bedrock of the community-college system—has prepared hundreds of millions of people for transfer to four-year colleges or entry into the work force.
But these days, the sector finds itself in a fight to save that signature trademark. As budgets dwindle and the pressure to graduate more students grows, community-college educators from instructors to presidents worry about the future. Less state and local money is making its way to college coffers, prompting painful choices. And the clarion call for the sector to produce more graduates, part of a nationwide effort to boost education levels, has forced colleges to use scarce resources for degree programs rather than for remedial courses.
The focus now is on the best-prepared students, and not on those who may never graduate. Community colleges foresee a day when access to all is no longer the norm but the exception.
“Community colleges are being hammered to increase graduation rates,” says Gary D. Rhoades, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, who also works with the Center for the Future of Higher Education, a research group. “One way to do that is to change the sort of student you serve.” Such a shift would profoundly affect the millions of low-income and minority students who look to attend community colleges every year, many of whom need remedial education first.
In a report in February, the American Association of Community Colleges sounded the alarm on how the national completion agenda is starting to affect community colleges. “In policy conversations,” it said, “there is a silent movement to redirect educational opportunity to those students deemed ‘deserving.’ “
That is an uncomfortable thought for a sector that prides itself on being all things to all people all the time: offering English-language classes for immigrants and enrichment programs for senior citizens. But early evidence suggests that some community colleges are already making judgment calls about whom they educate, and how.
Many of those decisions center on remedial education, long an obstacle to improving graduation rates. Academically unprepared students are usually required to enroll in a sequence of remedial courses to get ready for college-level work. More than 60 percent of students at two-year colleges are steered into developmental education, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Because a considerable number of students place into the bottom rung of those courses, it tends to take them a year or more to complete the sequence. Many fail, or do not progress, and just drop out. <Read more. May require subscription.>