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Is open access but a dream?

Spurred by the World War II GI Bill in 1944, promoted by the President's Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy in 1947, and funded by the Higher Education Act and its amendments in 1965 and later on, access moved to and has remained center stage in the debate over who goes to college in America. The confluence of these and other laws and reports--and especially the development of a nationwide network of public community colleges--saw America's dream of universal access to higher education become a reality--in theory, if not always in practice. Unfortunately for many Americans today, the dream of obtaining a higher education is just that--a dream.

Those Americans who are ill-prepared to negotiate the nation's system of higher education are threatened with being squeezed out of the pipeline that leads to either the associate's degree or bachelor's degree, and once squeezed out, they have no place to go. Viewing the scene from North Carolina's higher-education epicenter, the tragic drama plays itself out as follows.

A Gripping Drama

Student A (or an "A" student, as it were) is from an upper-middle-class family and has excellent SAT scores and high-school grades. Her goal is to attend Duke University, where she has been admitted. But the economy is sluggish and both her father's and mother's firms are facing downsizing. The $40,000 a year it costs to attend Duke is just too much for the family to take on. Not to worry. Student A, with her GPA and SAT scores, has an excellent alternative plan for obtaining an outstanding--even an elitist--higher education. She accepts the offer to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The total cost is only a little more than $12,000 a year for this North Carolina native (a real bargain for her family). No problem here, then: UNC-CH it is.

Meanwhile, Student B (who had almost all "A's" in high school and very good SAT scores), who was not as academically prepared or as active in school and community activities as Student A, had plans to attend UNC-CH (he is on a waiting list). Alas, disappointment is delivered in a rejection letter from that institution. So he turns to another state university where he has already been accepted, North Carolina Central University. NCCU is committed to serving average as well as excellent students. NCCU, as with all other members of the North Carolina university system, has set enrollment limits several years in advance based on available and anticipated resources. Members of the university system, unlike many community colleges, admit only the number of students for which they have planned and for which they receive funding.

At this point, Student C arrives on stage (having earned a number of "C's" in high school and average SAT scores); she was planning on going to NCCU. As was the case with Student B, Student C receives a rejection letter from her college of choice. Again, not to worry--there is always Wake Technical Community College, the local two-year school. Student C, who knows the ropes of applying for college--she has just been through the process--applies to the community college the day after receiving her rejection letter from NCCU. She is quickly admitted, occupying one of a limited number of seats available at the popular and overcrowded college.

The next "someone else" might well have been a newly naturalized citizen from Mexico whose only hope of attending college in America was the local community college. It could have been a laid-off mill worker who has no job and little education. Or it might have been a recent high-school graduate whose single mother fights constantly to keep her family above the poverty level. Had he been admitted, he would have had to continue working at his minimum-wage job while attending the school. The result of this little drama is that these individuals are likely squeezed out of the higher-education pipeline with no place to go, since both their academic skills (the English language presents major problems for all three) and job opportunities are limited.

This drama played itself out in a geographic area with all four of the institutions located within about 20 miles of each other. But the problem of students being barred from higher education isn't limited to a single geographic area. It's a nationwide problem.

Warning Signs

The squeezing-out scenario has threatened open access to higher education for a number of years--but it's largely been a threat and not a reality. Today, however, there are signs that ill-prepared individuals (economically, academically and socially) really are being squeezed out of higher education. For one thing, tuition has steadily increased at community colleges recently. At the same time. Pell Grant funding has remained level while inflation has taken its toll. The minimum wage (the wage earned by many feeling the squeeze) has increased a whopping 40 cents an hour, from $4.75 in 1997 to $5.15 an hour today. Nationally, unemployment has been relatively high for the past several years, putting additional pressure on lower socioeconomic groups to use their limited resources for food and shelter rather than for a "luxury" such as higher education.

Meanwhile, state funding for community colleges has decreased in most states, forcing the only truly open-access segment of higher education to turn away scores of students. Many students turned away are from lower socioeconomic groups, with neither parents nor siblings who have gone to college and who don't know how to navigate the murky waters of college admissions and financial aid.

So more and more individuals are left standing outside the community college's "open door"--figuratively and literally. They're discovering that attending a community college is little more than a dream, squeezed out of higher education by the subtle but pernicious processes and circumstances described above. But there is still work to be done before the process of squeezing out is perfected.

The Big Squeeze Takes Hold

In a Washington Post article, staff writer Amy Argetsinger notes that many students who have the academic qualifications to attend selective four-year institutions are choosing to attend community colleges. Dr. Robert Templin, the president of Northern Virginia Community College, fears that this trend could squeeze out older and lower-income students. Similarly, the Committee on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives notes that because of uncontrolled and escalating college costs, during the next decade college will be out of reach for low-and middle-income students.

These critical trends pose major threats to open access. But they're not enough to ensure that lower socioeconomic groups are squeezed out of higher education. A foolproof plan is necessary, and California's governor may well have conceived of such a plan.

Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan, 7,600 University of California applicants and 3,800 California State University applicants who would normally have been accepted as freshmen in the respective university systems weren't admitted. Instead, they were told they could attend one of the state's 109 community colleges. Their rejection letters all but guaranteed them admission to the community college of their choice. In reality, they would be all but guaranteed admission without the letter, considering their academic records, socialization and familiarity with the admissions process.

The approximately 11,000 students would enter a system that in the 2003-2004 academic year cut about 5,800 courses and turned away 90,000 applicants. If the community colleges cannot admit all who applied last year, and if more than 11,000 new students entered the system, someone has to be cut. And who will it be? Those who apply late, those who don't understand the admissions process, those whose financial situation requires that they weigh their options very carefully, those who have difficulty with English, those whose parents or siblings didn't attend college, single mothers with few job skills, minorities and anyone from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Rather than attending their local community college, these students will be squeezed out of higher education in a planned way. If anyone has any doubts that the plan will affect those described above, continue to read.

Scott Lay, budget director for the Community College League of California, said the California Department of Finance "expects the additional community-college enrollment won't be an issue, because of proposed fee increases from $18 per unit to $26 per unit for 2004-2005." Lay goes on to say that "They (those at the Department of Finance) acknowledge that the increase is pricing out 37,000 students and that will make room for these redirected students." No one, I believe, could come up with a more nefarious plan for guaranteeing that the squeezing-out scenario functions effectively and efficiently.

Action and Reaction

In the Dec. 5, 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, I argued that if open access to the nation's community colleges is to be preserved, the practice must be re-examined and the term redefined. The re-examination and redefinition, I suggested, should result in a process that would prevent those who linger on the periphery of American higher education from being squeezed out of the higher-education pipeline. I suggested that if community-college leaders are to preserve open access, the process for preserving it must include admitting individuals from all segments of society and not basing admissions on a first-come, first-serve basis.

If the drama that's likely unfolding in North Carolina and other states and the Schwarzenegger plan for California don't stir reaction and action from community-college leaders, open access will lose its place as a centerpiece of the American dream. If open access to higher education is no longer a part of the American dream, the dream will lose much of its allure, and the country will lose an immense amount of talent.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:point of view
Author:Vaughan, George B.
Publication:Community College Week
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 6, 2004
Previous Article:Beyond basic: linking adult education to college participation.
Next Article:On the up and up.

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