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Community Colleges Argue for Continued Open Access

As higher education faces diminished state support and pressure for degree completion, community colleges are in a difficult position. The two-year institutions are a more affordable, practical option for many low-income, underserved minorities and nontraditional students. Not on a typical college path, many of these students attend part time or work while in school and take longer to get through their programs. Others transfer after a year or are displaced workers taking a few classes to retrain for new careers.

Will the national push to increase the number of college graduates hurt community college access?

That's the focus of a new policy brief from the American Association of Community Colleges. In "Why Access Matters: The Community College Student Body," author Christopher Mullin writes that reported rates for success of students in community colleges are understated and misleading. Community colleges serve a distinctive population, including noncredit students and those who attend year-round, who often have more risk factors when compared with their peers throughout all of higher education. Because community colleges are open access, they do not build a selective student body.

"The open door philosophy not only benefits community colleges, but also benefits other sectors of higher education," writes Mullin. "Unfortunately, other members of the higher education community may not appreciate this role that community colleges play."

Many students go on to transfer to four-year institutions, and research shows they are as likely to earn a bachelor's degree as those who start at a four-year college.

The brief outlines the changing demographics and growth in community college enrollment, fueled in part by the increase in dual-enrollment programs. While 1.6 percent of community college students in 1993 were younger than 18, by 2009, it had increased to 7 percent, according to the AACC. Nearly 40 percent of undergraduates who live in poverty attend community colleges, as do about half of all minority undergraduates. Mullin writes that restricting access could exclude many of these students typically served by community colleges.

The brief suggests there is a silent movement to redirect educational opportunity to "deserving" students, and the focus on completion has to potential to influence who is allowed to take advantage of higher education. To ensure that the focus on completion does not result in a more restricted student body, Mullin maintains that those community colleges that provide the broadest opportunity should be given an incentive to continue to be open access. Performance measures need to be adjusted to count students reaching varying levels of success, reflect the work happening on community colleges campuses, and encourage inclusion, according to the brief.

The AACC has advocated in the past for new ways of tracking student performance to include part-time students and others.

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