When access is not enough


Vincent Tinto, Distinguished University Professor at Syracuse University and a recent visiting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, writes on student success in this month’s Carnegie Perspectives:

While many observers applaud the fact that the access to higher education for low-income students has increased over the past two decades and the gap in access between them and higher income students decreased, few have pointed out that the gap in the completion of four-year degrees has not decreased. Indeed, it appears to have increased somewhat. That this is the case reflects a range of issues not the least of which is the well-documented lack of academic preparation which disproportionately impacts low-income students. The result is that while more low-income students are entering college, fewer are able to successfully complete their programs of study and obtain a four-year degree. For too many low-income students the open door to American higher education has become a revolving door.

What is to be done? Clearly there is no simple answer to this important question. Yet it is apparent that unless colleges are able to more effectively address the academic needs of low-income students in ways that are consistent with their participation in higher education, little progress is possible. But doing so will be not achieved by practice as usual, by add-ons that do little to change the experience of low-income students and the ways academic support is provided. Too many colleges adopt what Parker Palmer calls the “add a course” strategy in addressing the issues that face them. Need to address the issue of student success, in particular that of new students? Add a course, such as a Freshman Seminar, but do little to reshape the prevailing educational experiences of students during the first year. Need to address the needs of academically underprepared students? Add several basic skills courses, typically taught by part-time instructors, but do nothing to reshape how academic support is provided to students or how those courses are taught. Therefore, while it is true that there are more than a few programs for academically underprepared students, few institutions have done anything to change the prevailing character of their educational experience and therefore little to address the deeper roots of their continuing lack of success.

Fortunately, there are currently some who have, . . .

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When access is not enough

  1. Doesn’t it make more sense to invest at the primary and secondary levels to help ensure that students who are qualified on paper to get into university are also prepared when they get there?

  2. It makes sense to invest at the primary and secondary levels, yes. Does it make “more sense”? Not necessarily. Issues of access and participation need to be addressed in a holistic way, utilizing multiple measures at different levels of the education system. An “invest here instead of over there” approach will not do this.

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