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Turning College 'Access' Into 'Participation'

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The idea of "access" to higher education has been enshrined in rhetoric for three decades, during which time the number of undergraduates in the United States more than doubled, from 6 million to nearly 13 million, while the proportion of college students completing degrees of any kind remained flat. This contrast strongly suggests that "access" may not be the word we need in 1997.

"Access" is what happened when buildings were modified with ramps and special elevators so that individuals previously excluded by structural features had the opportunity to enter and use the facilities. Indeed, they enter, and in great numbers. But what they actually do once they are in the buildings and whether other users interact with them in productive ways--these are not "access" issues.

Similarly, a variety of policies have opened the doors and provided ramps into colleges, community colleges, and other postsecondary institutions for ever-higher proportions of our high school graduating classes. Three out of four high school graduates (and seven out of 10 black and Latino high school graduates) in 1992, for the most recent available example, took advantage of "access" to higher education by 1994. That 75 percent "access rate" is up from 67 percent for the class of 1982 and 58 percent for the class of 1972.

In this accounting, "access" means that you enrolled for at least one course, and stayed long enough to generate a record. But what kind of record? Data from the National Center for Education Statistics allow us to follow the same students on high school and college transcripts from age 14 to age 30. Of those in the high school class of 1982 who entered higher education, we find that, by 1993:

  • Thirteen percent were incidental students: They earned no more than 10 credits, and 60 percent were gone within a year of entry.
  • Another 24 percent earned more than 10 credits but less than two years' worth of credits. Most started out in community colleges, nearly half attended more than one college, and an even higher proportion produced a curricular trail for which "amorphous" is a generous description.
  • Eight percent earned more than 60 credits but no degree. Nearly two-thirds of these students started out in four-year colleges, and 70 percent attended more than one school. The majority of them wandered from one major to another with no resolution.
  • The balance completed credentials: certificates (6 percent), associate's degrees (9 percent), and bachelor's degrees (40 percent). They at least emerged from the building with a currency on which to draw in a credential-driven labor market.

In these stark numbers we are looking at different levels and indicators of "participation" in higher education, not "access." Compared to participation, access is easy work. If our rhetoric emphasized participation, we might act more effectively in light of the problems that these numbers begin to reveal.

I'm not sure what we can do about the "incidental students." More than a third were either high school dropouts at some time or said they really didn't like school. For a majority, educational aspirations were low, and precollege records followed suit with little academic content. This combination is formidable.

But we can work with and for the other potential noncompleters, whose histories reflect inadequate high school preparation in mathematics (with the majority not getting even as far as Algebra 2), comparatively high rates (20 percent) of college-level remediation in reading, a high incidence of "stop-out," incoherent courses of study, and a considerable amount of "school hopping." Multi-institutional attendance is not damaging in and of itself, but in this configuration of behaviors, it adds to a spiral of disillusionment.

To counter stop-out, colleges may have to bend the rules to keep the student enrolled, attached to the institution and its community, even if for one course per term.

How do we address these dissonances so that students with access can use the edifice of higher education more efficiently? Bringing high school students through and (especially) beyond Algebra 2 has an incredibly powerful impact on degree completion. So does improvement in reading skills, which we so naively take for granted. We ask our community colleges, in particular, to develop these abilities after students enter the building. But there are other options for community colleges to help guarantee student learning before "access."

For example, just as community colleges contract with businesses to provide customized training programs, so could they be funded to contract with high schools for courses such as trigonometry and supplementary skill-building in reading, using the "feeder" relationships many have developed with high schools in the context of tech-prep and school-to-work programs. Some of this goes on today, but not enough.

Another strategy addresses nonschool time, and the dispiriting fact that only 28 percent of community colleges currently operate precollegiate outreach programs under any sponsorship. Depending on proximity to the student population, one could choose approaches ranging from year-round Saturday schools (rural, suburban) to drop-in community technology centers (urban) to Intranet links from community college learning centers to terminals in libraries, churches, and other community institutions. The participation problem requires a vast expansion of these efforts.

But we need to do some work inside the building, as well. The rates of stop-out and eclectic multi-institutional attendance reflect poor monitoring and advisement in college as much as student consumerism. The fact that a significant proportion of the noncompleters have no academic identity indicates, too, a failure to assist them in finding fields of interest and strength. To counter stop-out, colleges may have to bend the rules to keep the student enrolled, attached to the institution and its community, even if for one course per term. The task of assisting students in establishing academic identities, though, is more difficult and may involve a degree of institutional candor and risk that we rarely encounter in higher education. If the student expresses interest in a particular academic path and the college has nothing to offer in that field but a trail with potholes and washed-out bridges, it has an obligation to help the student transfer to a school that can do better.

After all, if we really care about something more than "access," it's the student who counts, not our institutional egos.

Clifford Adelman is an active member of the American Association for Higher Education and the Association for Institutional Research and serves as a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.

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