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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue D ::: February 04

The Open Door Policy

Hidden Barriers to Postsecondary Education for Nontraditional Adult Learners

by Deepa Rao
Community colleges have long recognized the need for postsecondary education and made access to it easy and affordable. Most community colleges have made a strong commitment to what is known as the open door policy: they will not turn away any student who has a high school diploma or has passed the tests of General Educational Development (GED). Many nontraditional adult learners enter community colleges, via this open door, after completing adult basic education (ABE) programs or having been out of school for a long time. As inviting as the open door may be, some hidden barriers in this policy may prevent nontraditional learners from attaining a degree. 

The open door policy at community colleges is a benefit to nontraditional adult learners who want to go to college but are intimidated by the criteria of the traditional admissions process. A potential student needs only to complete the application and provide a copy of a high school diploma or a GED certificate. Also, high school transcripts, Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) or ACT scores, and letters of recommendation are not required. The simplicity of the application process makes applying easy and the rolling admissions policy allows learners - traditional and non - to submit an application at any time and begin their postsecondary educations almost immediately.

Who are nontraditional students? Several characteristics help define them. Nontraditional students generally have delayed enrollment, meaning that they did not enter postsecondary education immediately after completing high school (NCES, 1996). Approximately 41 percent of the students enrolled in postsecondary education are age 25 and older; the average age is 29 (AACC, 2000). They usually have a GED or an Adult Diploma, rather than a traditional high school diploma. Many of these students are financially independent, attend school part-time, and work full-time. Many have dependents other than their spouses and many are single parents. They also tend to be the first in their families to attend college (National Center for Education Statistics, 1996).

Remediation Needs
By keeping the doors to higher education wide open, community colleges have accepted the responsibility for educating all their students, including those who are not ready to do college-level work. Almost all community colleges offer remedial classes in math, English, and writing. Community colleges now serve more than 10 million students a year. Almost five million of these students are enrolled in one or more remedial courses that often do not offer credits toward a degree (Community College, 2000). Remedial or developmental courses are designed to help under-prepared students strengthen their reading, writing, and math skills so they will succeed in college-level, credit-bearing courses. Most of the students in remedial or developmental courses are right out of high school, but many of the students who need remediation are nontraditional adult learners who have been out of school for a long time (Jenkins & Boswell, 2002). This is one of the hidden barriers to completing postsecondary education: the open door policy in terms of academic achievement masks the skill requirement that exists.

History of the Open Door Policy

From their inception in the early 20th century, community colleges have offered higher education to the masses. Until the late 1960s, attracting academically prepared students was not a problem. In the late 1960s there was a significant decline in the number of college-bound students. The universities decided to relax admissions policies and offer financial aid to attract academically prepared students. As the pool of academically prepared students dwindled, the community colleges had to try a new strategy. They implemented the open door policy to draw students and increase their enrollment (Cohen & Brawer, 2003).

Community colleges have different standards for what is considered remedial. Standards differ from state to state and sometimes even within a state (Jenkins & Boswell, 2002). To determine whether a student needs remediation, most community colleges require students to take a basic skills assessment test (Jenkins & Boswell, 2002). The most popular college placement tests are the ACCUPLACER and the ASSET. Both are adaptive computer tests: each new question is based on whether the previous question has been answered correctly. If the question has been answered correctly, the level of difficulty for the next question increases; it decreases if the question is answered incorrectly. Students generally take this three-hour test as a part of the enrollment process before the semester starts. A student who scores 75 on the Sentence Skills section of the ACCUPLACER may place into the highest-level remedial English course at one school or into a credit-bearing course at another. Cut-off scores prevent underprepared students from placing into credit-bearing courses. Nothing, however, prevents students whose skills are below the level needed to succeed in remedial-level classes from placing into them. Students who need to complete one or two remedial courses have a good success rate for completing a degree program. This success rate decreases with each additional remedial course. In one study, 55 percent of students who took only one remedial course completed a degree program. This rate dropped to 35 percent for students who took three or more remedial courses, including reading (Adelman, 1998). Is the open door open too wide? Should community colleges redirect students who are going to need more than two remedial courses to other programs - back to ABE programs, perhaps - before they enter community college?

Remedial education is not free. At many community colleges, the tuition for one remedial course is the same as or slightly less than a credit-bearing course. The average cost to attend a public two-year college is $1,735 per year for tuition and fees. This does not include books and supplies and other expenses such as rent, transportation, and care for dependents. Total expenses in 2003 for a full-time education at two-year public college could cost a student more than $10,000 a year (The College Board, 2002). 

The federal government provides some financial relief to eligible college-bound students through loans and grants. To receive federal loans, students must be enrolled for at least six credit hours. Nontraditional adult learners often attend school less than halftime, taking less than six credit hours a semester (Bosworth & Choitz, 2002). Less than half-time students are not eligible for the federal loans; the only federal funding for which they are eligible are Pell Grants.

The Pell Grant is available only to those who show financial need and who have not completed a Bachelor's degree. It does not have to be repaid. Students who receive a Pell Grant each year must make what is termed satisfactory progress toward completing a degree-bearing program, such as a certificate program or an Associate's or a Bachelor's program. This progress is measured in credits acquired towards a degree or certificate, and can affect whether or not the student will receive the Pell Grant again. Most community colleges allow students to use their Pell Grants to pay for remedial courses. In most cases, however, students receive only what is termed institutional credit for taking remedial courses. These credits do not go towards an Associate's or Bachelor's degree. Students who rely on their Pell Grant funding to pay for remedial courses are not making satisfactory progress towards a degree. Students must reapply for the Pell Grant each year and this request will eventually be denied (Shoreline Community College, 2003). This loss of funding can have a huge impact on a student's ability to complete a degree. 

- Fast Facts -

The Pell Grant

  • The Pell Grant is the most common form of federal grant funding.
  • It does not have to be repaid.
  • It is available only to those who show financial need and who have not completed their Bachelor's degree.
  • Students must apply for the Pell Grant every year; it is not guaranteed.
  • It can be used to pay for remedial/developmental courses at most community colleges.
  • It cannot be used for short-term training courses (example: six week job training course).
  • A student can jeopardize Pell Grant funding if he or she is not making satisfactory progress towards a degree (Associate's or Bachelor's)

The Details

  • The amount of grant money a student receives is based on a complex formula that takes into account expenses such as credit hours, tuition, and how much the student can contribute.
  • The Pell Grant award decreases if the student's contribution increases.
  • The formula does not take into account personal expenses such as rent, books, or computers.

(Shoreline Community College, 2003)

The community colleges are caught in a dilemma: most postsecondary institutions look to the federal government for funding to operate their developmental classes. The money comes from the higher education budget, with the stipulation that the school has to provide credit for all courses paid for by these funds. Without these funds, the colleges would probably not offer the courses. And these courses benefit the many students who need just a little remediation before enrolling in credit-bearing courses. 

Narrowing the Opening
Some postsecondary institutions are examining their open door policies. In 2001, for example, the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) instituted a new policy called responsible admissions. UMA found that not all students with GEDs or high school diplomas were proficient enough in reading, writing, and math to be successful in college-level or even in remedial-level courses. They did not want to set up their students (and faculty) for frustration and failure. Students in the lower 25th percentile of their high school class or students who scored in the lower 25th percentile of the GED must take a pre-admissions placement test. All other students take a placement test after they enroll. If a student does not do well enough on the placement test to place into the remedial-level courses, UMA refers him or her to a local adult education center. Students who need to work on only one skill are offered admission to the University. Those who need work on more than one skill are encouraged to retake the placement test once they complete the courses at the adult education center (Sherry Fraser, personal communication, May 23, 2003). Other colleges may have similar programs underway.

Without the community college's commitment to the open door policy and remedial education, nontraditional adult learners would not have access to postsecondary education. But access is not enough. Community colleges should recognize that not all students are ready even for remedial-level work. By not recognizing this, they are undermining the success of nontraditional adult students. By placing students in courses that are above their skill level, they are setting students up for failure. The more Pell Grant money students spend on institutional credit remedial courses, the less Pell Grant money they will be able to spend on credit-bearing courses that can be counted towards a degree.

While opening doors to all students is a laudable goal, community colleges would do well to re-examine policies that admit students with very limited academic skills. Less than halftime students, who may use their Pell Grant award to pay for several remedial courses, need to know what the Pell Grant guidelines are for making "satisfactory progress" and that they may lose funding if they do not meet them. Both adult education centers and community colleges should take responsibility for educating nontraditional students about these critical points.

Adelman, C. (1998). The kiss of death? An alternative view of college remediation. http://www.highereducation.org/crosstalk/ct0798/voices0798-adelman.shtml; accessed May 21, 2003.

American Association of Community Colleges (2000). Community college fact sheet. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Content/NavigationMenu/AboutCommunityColleges/
; accessed April 20, 2003.

Bosworth, B., & Choitz, V. (2002). Held Back: How Student Aid Programs Fail Working Adults. (pp. 1-3). Belmont, MA: FutureWork.

The Center for Community College Policy. (2000) Quick facts: Remedial education. www.communitycollegepolicy.org/html/Issues/Remedial/quickfacts_RE.htm; www.communitycollegepolicy.org/html/top.asp?page=Issues/
; accessed April 20, 2003.

Cohen, A., & Brawer, F. (2003). The American Community College. Fourth Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The College Board (2002). Trends in college pricing. www.collegeboard.com/press/cost02/html/CBTrendsPricing02.pdf; accessed April 15, 2003. 

Jenkins, D., & Boswell, K. (2002). "State policies on community college remedial education: Findings from a national survey." Education Commission of the States. Denver, CO: Center for Community College Policy.

National Center for Education Statistics (1996). Nontraditional undergraduates: Trends in enrollment from 1986 to 1992 and persistence and attainment among 1989-90 beginning postsecondary students. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/ 97578.html; accessed October 2, 2003.

Shoreline Community College (2003). Federal Pell Grant Program: 2003 legislative brief. http://elmo.shore.ctc.edu/Legislative/PELL%20BRIEF%202003.pdf; accessed April 20, 2003.

About the Author
Deepa Rao has been coordinating the New England ABE-to-College Transition Project, a project of the New England Literacy Resource Center, World Education, Boston, since April, 2002. Prior to that, she worked as a GED and ESOL/Citizenship Program coordinator and teacher in Boston. She began her adult education career as a volunteer teacher for Americorps/City Year Boston Program.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL