Access to Higher Education
Starting with the land-grant movement, U.S. higher education has been marked by various milestones in the drive to ensure greater access to postsecondary education for the citizenry (Gándara, Horn, & Orfield, 2005; Kerr, 2001). However, some higher education scholars are sounding alarms that what progress toward greater access has been made is now being reversed (Gardner, 2004; Valentine, 2004). Arguments have been made that underrepresented students have been particularly affected by the access crisis, as factors such as rising tuitions and lack of adequate academic preparation seem to disproportionately impact them (Bastedo & Gumport, 2003; Choy, 2002; Gardner, 2004; Hoffman, 2003; Valentine, 2004).
Keywords Academic Preparation; Access Crisis; At-Risk Students; College-Based Credit; Convenient Access; Distributional Access; Examination-Based College Credit; First-Generation Students; Immigrants; Low-Income Students; Minority Students; Need-Based Financial Aid; Recurrent Access; School-Based Credit; Threshold Access; Underrepresented Students; Universal Access; Virtual-College Credit Courses
According to Valentine (2004), "American democracy has been characterized by policies that reflect a national commitment to allowing all qualified and motivated Americans to receive post-secondary education" (pp. 179–180). Access, particularly to public forms of higher education, is generally perceived as an informal right of American citizens. Bastedo and Gumport (2003) stated that "equality of opportunity for all students to attend public higher education in their state, without regard to their background or preparation, is a foundational principle of higher education policymaking in the United States" (p. 341). Scholars have contended that there are dire consequences when access to higher education is threatened. For instance, Dalton (2000) stressed that "a population denied access to college carries significant economic and social costs and ultimately places our nation at risk" (¶ 1). Costs can take the form of public assistance as well as health and social services (Dalton, 2000).
The push for universal access in American higher education originated with the land grant movement of the 1860s. Mainly an agricultural nation at the time, the movement facilitated access to some form of higher education for the citizenry at large, such as farming families (Kerr, 2001). According to Kerr (2001), in an increasingly democratic nation the land grant movement served "less the perpetuation of an elite class and more the creation of a relatively classless society, with the doors of opportunity open to all through education" (p. 36). Gándara, Horn, and Orfield (2005) identified several other events in the history of American higher education that have contributed to improving access. These included the G.I. Bill, the 1965 Higher Education Act, the advent of college access programs, the rise of affirmative action, and growth in the higher education system during the 1960s and 1970s. Kerr (2001) similarly added that during the time after World War II, the passage of the G.I. Bill positioned the universal access movement further along by making higher education a possibility for many students who were the first in their families to attend college (Kerr, 2001).
Despite historical gains in access to postsecondary education, some higher education scholars are sounding the alarm to signal a crisis of opportunity. Gándara et al. (2005), for example, proposed that there is now an access crisis in American higher education that has been fueled by lack of state support for higher education, rising tuitions, an end to affirmative action in some states, and decreased capacity to accommodate students. Overall, Gándara et al. (2005) stressed that the current higher education system is "inadequate to meet the expanding need for postsecondary education in the 21st century" (p. 255). According to Dalton (2000), measures must be taken to ensure that all young people succeed and particular attention should be given to students in low-income communities.
According to Choy (2002), five steps are necessary for a student to enter a four-year college or university. These steps include the following:
• Aspiring to college,
• Preparing academically for college,
• Taking the necessary entrance exams (such as the SAT or ACT),
• Applying to college, and
• Enrolling in college.
Along the way to entering a four-year higher education institution, the most students are lost early in the journey — either because they do not aspire to a four-year degree or are not academically prepared to enter a four-year institution (Choy, 2002).
Regardless of whether or not an overall crisis of opportunity exists, access to higher education has been particularly difficult for certain subsets of the population. These include underrepresented students, immigrants, and international students and scholars.
Underrepresented students are first and foremost impacted by factors limiting access. For instance, Valentine (2004) expressed concern that low-income students would be particularly affected by the access crisis in higher education. It has been proposed that because of increased tuitions, these students might either forego higher education completely or else struggle to achieve a postsecondary degree due to the need to delay entry, work more hours while enrolled, or take on vast debt (Gardner, 2004; Valentine, 2004). Final recommendations from the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education actually included increasing access to higher education by providing more aid to low-income students (Pluviose, 2006).
While great concern exists for low-income students, when students are the first in their families to attend college they can also encounter obstacles to postsecondary access. Using data from a series of longitudinal studies conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Choy (2002) found that, along with family income, level of parental education affects the likelihood of a student enrolling in postsecondary education. For instance, as both family income and level of parental education increase, the chances that a high school graduate will immediately enroll in a four-year higher education institution after graduation also increase (Choy, 2002). Indeed, students who have parents who both completed college are more likely to remain on course and complete all the steps necessary to enter a four-year institution (Choy, 2002).
Access to higher education for underrepresented minority students is also an issue. Ward (2006) offered that "comprehensive strategies are critical in addressing the problem of the achievement gap for low-income minority students" (p. 67). Overall, it seems that scholars are particularly concerned about access issues for low-income students, but there is indication that the struggles low-income students face regarding access can be compounded when they are also of minority and/or first-generation immigrant status. Hoffman (2003) indicated that, along with retention and graduation rates, access correlates "strikingly with race, income, and family educational background" (¶ 7).
Reaching Underrepresented Students
Various outreach efforts have been put in place to help underrepresented students gain better access to higher education. Choy (2002) indicated simply that the support of "parents, peers, and school personnel can help at-risk students overcome a variety of obstacles to college access and persistence" (p. 15). Ward (2006) also noted that federal programs have been initiated to help improve access to higher education for underrepresented minorities and low-income students. While limited in their scope, the TRIO programs are among the better known federal programs and reflect three major federal initiatives:
• Upward Bound,
• Educational Talent Search (ETS), and
• Student Support Services (SSS) (Ward, 2006).
Upward Bound provides a four to six-week college bridge experience for low-income and minority first-generation high school students in order to help facilitate their successful transition to higher education (Ward, 2006). Meanwhile, ETS provides low-income and minority high school students with needed counseling services (e.g., academic, career, financial) to help them graduate from high school and successfully enter postsecondary education (Ward, 2006). Finally, SSS provides both financial and academic assistance to low-income and minority undergraduates (Ward, 2006).
A federal program called GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is intended for fill gaps left by the TRIO programs (Ward, 2006). Specifically, the initiative targets "the coupling of systemic...
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