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Nuancing of Access and Success
January 9, 2012 - 8:58am

Because the nation is rightly fixed on improving degree completion rates, the discussion about America’s higher education agenda is at risk of becoming so pedestrian that terms like access and success lose their meaning.  In similar fashion, once everyone and everything became “green” it was less clear to me what was meant by a “green economy,” “green jobs” or “green politics.”

Presently about 39% of the nation’s adult population has a college degree.  Yet, the two fastest growing populations (Latinos and African Americans) remain the least likely to earn a college degree. If America has any chance of returning to number one in the world for the proportion of college-educated adults its higher education system must produce approximately 40 million new degree holders over the next 15 years. This is virtually impossible without dramatically improving access and completion rates among low-income and minority students who collectively face the greatest difficulties completing college.  Consequently, improving access to college for low-income and minority students and improving their success rates while in college have become buzzwords in education communities.

Notwithstanding the importance of the degree completion agenda, there have been several instances over the last year that have caused me to worry that these terms are being thrown around with less than sufficient understanding about what they actually mean in relationship to required actions or more importantly what they might mean for students.

For example, the term access for many first-generation students has important meaning beyond merely enrolling in college.  Making less than optimal choices about where to go to college can significantly lower the chances of a student persisting to graduation.  Mismatching a student’s academic and social profile with a particular college can be disastrous with a population of students who do not have margin for error, money to waste, or the luxury of simply starting over somewhere else.  Improving college choice and the quality of information families have when transitioning from high school to college is often lost under the flashing headline of access.

In the same way, institutional factors that contribute to student success once in college are often ill-defined.  Student support services, for example, are too often discussed as simply the array of offices across campus that facilitate services like career counseling, academic advising, or health services.  Yet, there is virtually no evidence that links the quality or delivery of these services to success for minority students.  Many of these students have different help seeking characteristics, work more than 20 hours per week, and have limited family resources to draw upon—the kind that would help them through college anyway. Students, in chronicling their success in college rarely mention a student support office.  They are more likely to reference the human elements of support services. “Ms. Thomas believed in me”, “Dr. Chavez really worked with me,” “Dr. Gunnings understood where I was coming from and helped me bridge my background to my campus reality” are all expressions that lift up what is really meaningful for students concerning the support they receive and their ability to persist.

Missing this aspect of student support services might be likened to building the most advanced hospital and then staffing it with medical professionals who offer great patient services but poor patient care. For many low-income and minority students who are the first in their families to attend college, success is often marked by encountering faculty and staff who see and care about their personhood, believe in their potential, and provide them an opportunity to develop it. I wonder if this is what people mean by improving student success?

A 2008 British study found that many green idealists failed to make the grade environmentally. In other words, people who believe they have the greenest lifestyles are often the main culprits of environmental malevolence.  I do not need to spell out the potential analogy to the access and success agenda — do I?

The terms access and success cannot become abstracted in a way that together make them an overused catch-all phrase to discuss the degree completion without material understanding about what is required for measurable progress. 


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