The title “ The Dark Side of Open Enrollment. “ may give the impression that the author is against the “Open Door Policy” which indeed is not the case. In fact quite the contrary is true; however the open door policy does bring with it certain issues and problems that if not anticipated and addressed by educators and institutions, could have a very negative impact on the educational process.

   The focus of the community, junior, and technical colleges should be to serve the community. These institutions do this by providing education and training to the members of that community. The education and training received may be for purely aesthetic personal development reasons or it may be the foundation from which the students makes their living, effecting not only their lives but potentially the lives of their families, communities, and countless others. An individual may elect to pursue an academic or technical field whichever they decide is right for them. Therefore open enrollment encompasses giving everyone access to educational institutions if they choose to do so.  

   Perhaps one of the major concerns revolving around enrollment is the issue of attrition and retention. While it is important to hold institutions as well as individuals accountable, there are certain considerations that must be made. With budgets constantly increasing and funding oftentimes at best not increasing at the same rate, there are always major budgetary concerns. Institutions and programs are constantly under the microscope of politicians and regulators who are reportedly seeking fiscal responsibility. However too much emphasis on attrition and retention may be placed on the institutions. Who can argue with the fact that the more you work for something the more special it becomes, thus it is appreciated. In non-open enrollment systems participants have to earn the right to attend by whatever standards the institution and/or program demanded. A potential student has to look at the admission requirements and make sure that these were attained… quite often potential students have to compete for slots due to availability. Once a student has all of this ‘sweat equity’ invested, they are probably less likely to quit once they have started. These students may be more likely to take the opportunity more serious and give it their absolute best, which would be exhibited by their performance.

   The open enrollment policy on the other hand allows anyone to attend at anytime and therefore the opportunity may not be fully appreciated. This phenomenon may possibly manifest itself as a lack of performance in the classroom. Also since minimal effort was required to get into the system, the student may have few qualms about dropping out, especially when they feel that they can return at any time. These are factors that the institution cannot control and should not be held accountable for.

   Another area to examine in the discussion open enrollment is that of attitudes. The attitudes of our country are ever-changing and unfortunately not necessarily always for the better. In this day and time it appears that everyone is a victim of some sort and therefore no one has to accept responsibility for their actions and/or circumstances. Oftentimes it would appear that many people feel that the world ‘owes’ them for just being here; it would also appear that we can be as belligerent and obnoxious as we want to be because, “ I’m an American and I have a right to express my opinion. The attitudes, work ethic, and ‘common courtesies’ of generations past appear to be increasingly becoming obsolete and nonexistent. Although this is another discussion for another day, these attitudes do very often show up in our institutions and in our classrooms.

   When one strolls through a student union/commons type area you can hear students blatantly using profanity; in days gone by such a public display was unheard of. In prior generations everyone was taught ‘how to act in public’ and to so inappropriately was to bring shame and embarrassment to not only the individual but to the family as well. Today apparently that is not the case.

   Another attitudinal issue is that of students feeling like they can set the requirements for the course and how muck work should be expected. I teach a two hundred level, three credit hour behavioral science class; I require two essays each two pages in length, the best three out of four exams, a comprehensive final, and a ten-page research paper. I have on more than one occasion read in my class evaluations that I require entirely too much work for a three-hour class. I have also had a student seriously attempt to confront me in class stating that she did poorly on the exam because I asked the wrong questions. Excuse me? Again, it’s a reflection of contemporary attitudes. I am also amazed at people who come to class at their leisure, hand in assignments poorly done and past the due date, miss major assignments and yet expect, even demand, a passing or even superior grade. These are the same students who rip an instructor to shreds on evaluations because they are not getting the grade that they want. Furthermore, depending on the institution these evaluations may play a major role in performance review and the subsequent processes that affect that faculty member.

   In discussing problematic areas in this system, one must address the issues of academic preparation for college.  Without attempting to be critical of the secondary educational system, the truth of the matter is that we are getting students who just do not possess the knowledge and skills necessary to make it in college. Again, with the Open Enrollment Policy, these individuals merely present the appropriate credentials by the proper deadlines along with the appropriate fees and enter our educational system. We cannot assume that a high school diploma assures or represents an agreed upon basic level, if we could then there would be no need for mandatory assessment or placement. As things stand now students are often tested in reading, writing, and math (formerly known as the “ 3 R’s”) to assess their skill level. If the student tests below the college level then they are placed in a ‘developmental’ level course which is suppose to bring that student up to a basic college level. Depending on the content area, there may be two or three levels below where they should ideally be to succeed in college. Again, if students were sufficiently prepared beforehand, this assessment and placement system would be virtually nonexistent.

   So, what exactly does this have to do with the Community College? From an educator’s standpoint we must realize that our students may or may not have the skills that we expect and/or require. A student may not be doing well in our class because they cannot read sufficiently enough to comprehend the textbook, any handouts that we may give, or the questions on the exam. We may be assuming that a student is not taking their assignments or our class seriously, handing in work that is borderline incoherent, when the fact of the matter is that they lack the skills to grammatically put three sentences together to make a coherent paragraph. Perhaps a teacher has attempted to teach a concept again and again to no avail… the true problem may be that the student lacks the background necessary to understand the concept.

   As educators the challenge then becomes that we may very well have to develop different ways to present our topics to students on different levels. Another challenge to educators is to learn to recognize when a student has difficulties due to a lack of basic skills. Once this is perceived then the educators must know what resources are available within the college and how to steer that student in the proper direction. 

   From an administrative standpoint this ‘lack of basic skills’ area also poses some major issues. First, if our mission is truly to educate our population and with Open Enrollment students deficient in basic areas became a part of our population, the college is bound to provide all resources necessary for that population to acquire the skills that they need. This would go beyond the areas of developmental classes and extend to various workshops, tutors, labs, etc. It would be a disservice to students, if not a full-fledged unethical practice, to admit them to our institution knowing that they were skill deficient and not make attempts to teach them the skills necessary for success. Also a related issue is to at least offer, and some would suggest require, some type of general orientation class. Many or most colleges and universities offer a “XYZ 101” that may cover campus resources and programs, time management, study skills, institutional procedures and so forth. Many of our students are first generation college students and not understand that there is an official procedure to withdrawing from a class as opposed to just quit going. Oftentimes students get themselves into trouble that may have lasting consequences simply due to a simple lack of knowledge.

   Again the retention issue should be examined in this area also. If students do not have the skills necessary to survive, one would expect that this would have some bearing on the retention and attrition rate. Some students may become more determine than ever to attempt to persevere and attain their education. However many more are likely to quit the endeavor, give up on themselves, their goals and dreams. This factor is within little to no control of the institution so the retention figures may not necessarily be a valid measurement or at the very least may need to be adjusted. 

   Let me say that while I generally support the Open Enrollment Process I do not feel that everyone deserves an education. I do however strongly feel that everyone deserves the right to earn an education. Therefore as an educational institution we need to understand that we may not necessarily be able to provide an education for all of our students; our focus then needs to be providing the best education that we can for the students who are willing to work for it. If not we then may inadvertently jeopardize our standards and the integrity of our programs. Business and Industry as well as four year institutions and ‘professional schools’ do expect certain minimal standards from our graduates.  Community Colleges run the risk of merely becoming a ‘degree mill’ whereas the degrees and certificates granted are not worth the paper that they are printed on. We must hold on to the principle that our main focus is to provide a quality education to our population for them to be successful in their further endeavors, whether those endeavors be going into the workforce or proceeding on in academia. We need to assure that regardless of the skill and knowledge level of students coming into our system, when they complete their course of study they at least meet a basic level of competency. To lower our standards, even if others demand that we do so, would be unethical.  If we are to allow everyone to enter we then are obliged to provide the background skills necessary for success. We should not however allow ourselves to be tempted to allow students to be passed along through the system, ending up with poor skills at best. From here we could go into the debate of quantity vs. quality and I must follow my conviction that quality is what I must provide as a true educator. Unfortunately we are not in an ideal world and everyone does not necessarily view it that way.

   As previously stated, I do generally support the Open Enrollment Process. Unfortunately it does bring with it certain problems that if not recognized and addressed, could have a negative effect on the educational process and institutions. Both educators and administrators may become ineffective if we do not realize what to expect, exactly what we need to provide our student population, set and adopt standards of our education, and devise valid ways of measuring the job that we are committed to doing. Furthermore as with most issues in education this is an ongoing and ever evolving process.