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National efforts to significantly increase the number of college graduates could lead to curtailing access to higher education for some community college students, according to a new policy brief from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
Over the past few years, the federal government, several major foundations and a growing number of states have emphasized increasing the number of students earning a degree or certificate, and some are even tying funding to some form of completion. That is raising concerns whether the movement could exclude students that community colleges traditionally serve, including minorities and low-income students.
There is a “silent movement to redirect educational access to ‘deserving’ students,” especially at a time when many community colleges are serving more students with fewer public dollars, AACC’s new policy brief noted.
College completion and access should work in tandem, said Christopher Mullin, author of the policy brief and program director of policy analysis at AACC. Completion rates will not reach national goals—an additional 5 million community college students with credentials by 2020—without more students having an opportunity to attend college, he said.
“We can have 100 percent completion rates if we let only 10 people in the door. But limiting access goes against the community college mission,” Mullin said. (see video, below)
A balancing act
Since the current recession began in 2008, enrollments at community colleges have swelled. Aside from displaced workers returning to colleges to retrain for new careers, a greater number of younger students are starting their college careers at community colleges on their way to earn a baccalaureate. They recognize the financial value and quality of programs at two-year colleges.
The increase in dual-enrollment programs with high schools is also fueling the increase in enrollment. In 1993, 1.6 percent of community college students were under age 18. In 2009, it had increased to 7 percent, according to AACC.
However, such shifts in student populations can affect the students who two-year colleges serve, as they can find themselves competing for limited classes and resources, such as student services, according to the policy brief.
Restricting access would free up resources, but doing so would exclude many of the students that community colleges historically serve. Nearly half of all minority undergraduates and more than 40 percent of undergraduates who live in poverty (1.7 million students) attend community colleges, according to the policy brief. Many of them attend two-year colleges because they are affordable, located in their communities, and provide flexible hours and programs that serving working students with families.
Federal policy changes
Recent federal legislative changes will also affect college access for many students, the policy brief noted. As a cost-saving measure, Congress recently changed federal student aid eligibility rules, nixing the “ability-to-benefit” (ATB) test that showed whether a student without a high school diploma or GED could do college-level work. About 1 percent of community college students—roughly 100,000 total—are ATB students, according to AACC.
“This new federal policy contradicts that of many institutions that have been dedicated to serving this population,” according to the AACC policy brief.
While earning a GED is frequently an option to the ATB test, the brief noted that the GED is currently being revised, and some education officials are concerned that those changes—such as the cost of taking the test—could eliminate it as an alternative for some students.
Below, AACC's Christopher Mullin briefly discusses the new policy brief on access.
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