Chicago Mayor Richard Daley this week called for an end to the "open door" admissions policy at Chicago City Colleges, citing concerns about the cost of remedial courses and a desire to build a quality program.
Every year, the system spends about $30 million for remedial classes—about 6 percent of its $457.5 million budget. Daley suggested that a better approach might be to offer programs through alternative high schools to get students up to speed before they enter college.
Is this a sign of things to come?
Unfortunately, Chicago's approach is not unique, says George Boggs, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges. In tight economic times, community colleges are looking for places to cut back, and some are stopping their most basic remedial education programs.
"I'm a little concerned about this," Boggs says. "Community college has always been an open door for college. We have taken everybody." Students are assessed upon entry and take remedial programs if they aren't prepared. Boggs doesn't want to see colleges weed out students who are least able and don't have many other options.
It's like a hospital that only sees healthy patients, Boggs says. "I hate to see that philosophy—to improve quality by denying access to the most at-risk students," he says. "Where are these students going to turn? We need to find some way to take care of these students. We can't just leave them out there. It hampers their ability to be contributing members of society."
Colleges across the country are struggling to respond to burgeoning enrollment without an increase in funding, says John Roueche, a professor of education administration and director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas. If a college can adapt, then it runs the risk of the legislature concluding that it was over-funded to start with—so some college are shutting down enrollment. "It's a nice way to send a message that we can't do more with less," Roueche says.
Enrollment at community colleges is up nearly 17 percent in the past two years, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. A study by the Community College Research Center shows that about 60 percent of community college students need to take at least one remedial course.
In California, demand for classes has outpaced classroom space, but the state remains committed to the philosophy of open enrollment, says Terri Carbaugh, vice chancellor for communications of California Community Colleges. "As a matter of policy, there is no effort to restrict enrollment," she says.
However, because of high demand and shrinking resources, nearly 140,000 first-time students came to the system's campuses but couldn't find seats in priority classes last year, and the number may grow. Access is restricted because of pressure on resources, but not as a result of public policy, Carbaugh says.
Providing basic skills for student in need of a second chance is a primary mission of the community college system and not one that the state will likely shy away from any time soon, Carbaugh says. Rather, the conversation is along the lines of what can be done to bolster K-12 to improve college readiness and substantially reduce the demand for remediation.
The readiness gap has been the focus of recent research, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called on high schools to increase the rigor of their coursework. At the same time, President Obama has called for a concerted effort to raise the U.S. graduation rate to 60 percent in the next 10 years; about 40 percent of Americans ages 25-34 currently hold at least an associate degree, according to a College Board report.
These tough choices by community colleges will likely fuel the dialogue to improve college readiness in high schools and consideration of other options for remedial training. Some community college leaders say that "open door" means the opportunity is available, but that there is still an assumption of a certain level of readiness. It goes against the grain of community colleges to limit admissions, but the reality is that without adequate resources, choices are being made.