Patty Munsch, Ph.D
Suffoklk County Community College
Community colleges have historically been open access institutions. Open access refers to the admissions policy, by which; all students regardless of past academic performance are given the opportunity to go to college. As a result the majority of students who attend community college are not academically college-ready. Skill building, non-credit courses are offered in English, Reading and Mathematics to support students to enter courses in the Social Sciences, Humanities, Mathematics and Science (Cohen & Brawer, 2008, Kelsay & Zamani-Gallaher, 2014).
The work of the skill building or developmental education courses and the expectations of these courses should be noted. These courses attempt to provide years of academic skills in one semester or summer session. In one of my past roles, I met with students to discuss their college placement exam scores and their first semester courses. It was not unusual for students to score about a 30 on the arithmetic portion of the exam. As a result the student would complete a two semester sequence of developmental math upon which they are deemed ready for college level math. So, in essence, we expect our math faculty to teach about eight years of math skills in two semesters and we expect students to grasp eight years of course content in two semesters. Or course, in our current reporting processes, when it takes students additional time to gain this skill set it is negative. It will increase time to degree completion, decrease graduation rates, and hurt rate of completion for the student.
The current climate in community colleges, in my opinion, is focused on the Completion Agenda. The call to action put forth by President Obama for America to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. The American Association of Community Colleges furthered the call to action to community colleges by asking them to commit to increasing the number of college graduates by 50% by 2020 (Johnson McPhail, 2011). Coupled with the ever popular approach to resource allocation, performance based funding. Through this method of resource allocation, funding is tied directly to performance indicators such as student retention, rate of completion, and graduation numbers (Dougherty & Reddy, 2013).
So, when you think about a student who has scored a 30 on the mathematics placement exam they are a risk for the institution. The student could, if they do not learn eight years of mathematics in two semesters, hurt our performance indicators for rate of completion. The student may take more time to complete degree which negatively impacts our graduation numbers and if the student stops-out, as often they do, they have hurt our retention numbers. Conceivably the easiest way for community colleges to increase their graduation rates by 50% and meet performance indicators for performance-based funding is to end open access and set admissions standards that only allow students who are deemed college ready to enter the institution.
Open access as an admissions standard for community college is not being valued. Recognition must be paid to the student who takes 6 semesters to complete skill building math. This should be viewed as an accomplishment for the student and the institution, not a determinant to funding sources and calls to action. We must recognize that one of the fundamental differences between community colleges and their four-year counterparts is the commitment to provide open access to higher education. It is inconceivable that our student population should be judged and measured against students entering institutions with a standard for admissions.
In researching information for this piece I came across the Voluntary Framework for Accountability, a newly proposed approach to performance indicators. It is a respectful means to honor the work of the students, faculty and staff and resets the conversation about what performance indicators in open access institutions should include. As the conversations continue around performance-based funding and the completion agenda realize that both, if implemented based on four-year college standards, could limit access to higher education in the United States.
Cohen, A.M., & Brawer, F.B. (2008). The American community college (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA:
Dougherty, K., & Reddy, V. (2013). Performance funding for higher education: What are the
mechanisms? What are the impacts? ASHE Higher Education Report, 39:2
Johnson McPhail, C. (2011). The completion agenda: A call to action. Summary report from the
meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges Commissions and Board of Directors. Retrieved from http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Publications/Reports/Documents/CompletionAgenda...
Kelsay, L.S., & Zamani-Gallaher, E.M. (2015). Working with students in community colleges:
Contemporary strategies for bridging theory, research and practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.