College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Turning College ‘Access’ Into ‘Participation’

By Clifford Adelman — October 22, 1997 5 min read

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.

“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.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 1997 edition of Education Week as Turning College ‘Access’ Into ‘Participation’


School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Measuring & Supporting Student Well-Being: A Researcher and District Leader Roundtable
Students’ social-emotional well-being matters. The positive and negative emotions students feel are essential characteristics of their psychology, indicators of their well-being, and mediators of their success in school and life. Supportive relationships with peers, school
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Letter to the Editor Are Students Ready for Post-Pandemic Reality?
Schools must make improving students' essential skills a priority for college and career success, says the CEO and president of CAE.
1 min read
College & Workforce Readiness This Is Not a Good Time to Fall Off the College Track. Students Are Doing It Anyway
Fewer students in the Class of 2021 are applying for college financial aid, continuing a drop that started last year.
6 min read
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the decline.
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the decline.
Jon Elswick/AP
College & Workforce Readiness Student Interest in Health-Care Careers Takes Off During Pandemic
The coronavirus crisis is boosting a trend toward health-care and medical pathways. The challenge is getting students hands-on training.
7 min read
Nurse giving man injection
College & Workforce Readiness Thanks to COVID-19, High Schoolers' Job Prospects Are Bleak. Here's How Schools Can Help
The economic fallout from COVID-19 is speeding up workforce changes and vulnerable students are at greater risk of falling behind.
8 min read
African-American teen boy using laptop