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Quality and an Open Door

Higher education institutions and governments have a shared responsibility to ensure that adult learners have access to the educational opportunities necessary for them to achieve the career and life they want to reach.

Access to higher education is increasingly seen as a right. Yet, while 90 million adults are without a degree, and our standard of living is falling, barriers are being erected which impede prospective students’ access to colleges and universities.

The largest obstacle is that of cost. Four years of tuition can exceed the new home price of just ten years ago ($207K, 11/03 – U.S. Census Data). At the same time, state and local governments are reducing their allocations for education.

But cost is not the only barrier. Institutions are limiting access in other ways. Increased admissions selectivity is seen as a way to increase an institution’s reputation and national ranking. By limiting admissions to those with the highest GPAs, colleges position themselves as more prestigious. Additionally, strong students are easier to teach and more likely to graduate.

Higher graduation rates appease politicians, regulators, and accreditors while drawing plaudits from the media. This approval is important, as the federal government asks what it is getting for its billions of dollars spent on financial aid. Recruiting is also easier for a selective institution. Private institutions see less resistance to high tuition as students associate selectivity and high price with quality.

If prestige is the enemy of access, does it follow that those offering access to returning adults are compromising quality? No!

My institution is one of open access. Its mission is to provide educational opportunities to students not well-served by traditional higher education. Our students tend to be older, with children, working, from lower socio-economic circumstance, and, often, the first member of their family to attend college. Many are minorities. Some lack the academic preparation necessary for college success. These are “high risk” students.

Some public institutions have sought to end open enrollment, citing the high cost of remediation.[3&4] Two historically black colleges have recently proposed becoming more selective as a way to enhance graduation rates.[5]

Before taking such a step, we need to ask ourselves three questions:

1) What constitutes quality?

2) Are graduation rates the only metrics that matter?

3) What is the long-term cost of restricting access to only those we think will graduate?

Perhaps the time has come to measure quality in new ways – through a comparison of learning outcomes, and not from graduation rates alone. If quality is determined by graduate learning, measured against standardized criteria[7], we might gain a new perspective as to what constitutes a “quality” institution.

It may also be time to recognize that adult-serving, open-access institutions are not Ivy League schools or public research universities. While we share commonalities, those serving adults differ from those educating 18-24 year-olds. We are a segment of higher education with a uniquely different mission and values.[8]

For the moment, graduation rates—rightly or wrongly—are seen as an indicator of quality. While waiting for agreement around benchmarks, those at open institutions can take comfort knowing that “the largest gains in graduation rates over the past decade have been accomplished at open-access or nearly open-access colleges and universities,” according to research by William Doyle at Vanderbilt University. He states that, “[our research] challenges a commonly held notion that the best way to increase graduation rates is to make colleges more selective.”

“Nonselective colleges and universities (those that accept at least 80 percent of applicants) are leading the way in improving graduation rates,” he goes on to say. “These [institutions] account for most of the increases in completion rates in 33 states. In 16, these institutions account for 75 percent of the increases.”[9]

There is no question that institutions need to focus greater attention on degree completion. However, this should not be a reason for less rigor or quality. Neither do we want performance measured through comparisons to very different, traditional institutions.

The final question is: What is the cost of not maintaining open access?

  • Can we meet the goal to increase degree completion if we turn more students away?
  • Will our country be able to remain competitive without a more educated workforce?
  • What are the employment prospects for those we turn away, and what will this mean for social stability?
  • Without an educated workforce, how do we sustain our economy and standard of living?

Then, there is the issue of societal assimilations. With one-third of the nation’s population expected to be Hispanic by mid-century[10], we should recall the “moral purpose” of education that John Dewey wrote about. “Access to education is pivotal to preserving democracy in a multicultural society,” he noted.[11] With open access, workers from different backgrounds are acculturated and integrated into society. They gain knowledge and skills necessary to civic engagement and employment. Without such opportunity, there is a danger that new arrivals will become a drain on social services and the economy. This can create social tension and unrest.

America’s adults must have the opportunity to participate in higher education if we want to preserve our democratic way of life and our standard of living. Access is not just about who gets into college. It is also about who gets the knowledge and skills necessary for individual and national well-being.

Not all will succeed, but all should have a chance.

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  1. Tuckman, G. (2012). Pressured and Measured: Professors at Wannabe U. The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2012, V14, No1.
  2. Dizard, J. (2012). Lessons to be learnt as student debt soars higher than Hungary’s. Financial Times, 3/17/12, p.13
  3. Adams, C. (2010). Community Colleges rethink “open door” admissions as remedial costs rise. Education Week, 8/13/10
  4. Sandham, J.L. (1998) New York mayor wants CUNY to drop remedial courses. Education Week, 2/18/98
  5. Powers, E. (2008) Reconsidering open enrollment. Inside Higher Ed, 2/27/08
  6. Editorial Board (2010). Raise the community college graduation rate. The Christian Science Monitor, 4/26/2010
  7. Lumina Foundation (2011). Lumina Foundation releases degree profile: A new framework for defining the learning and quality that College degrees should signify. Lumina Foundation Press Release, 1/25/11
  8. Magretta, J. (2012). Understanding Michael Porter. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p.56
  9. Doyle, W.R. (2010). Open access colleges responsible for greatest gains in graduation rates. Policy Alert. National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2/10
  10. U.S. Census Press Release (2008). An older and more diverse nation by midcentury. US Government, 8/14/08
  11. Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. The Free Press, New York