Keeping the Door Open

By Joseph T. Barwick
President of Carteret Community College in Morehead City, NC


n a recent business trip, I found myself sitting beside a young woman who was reading one of those books that exist only because we have graduate schools in economics.  When I asked about it, she confirmed that she was, indeed, pursuing a masters degree, having achieved an associates degree and a bachelors degree, all while being employed full time.  She was returning from a visit with her older sister, who had stopped her education after high school, and had spent a considerable amount of the visit trying to convince the sister to go back to school.  The sister had responded: "But college isn't for everyone."  To which my new best friend said, "College makes you smarter.  What?!  Getting smarter isn't for everyone?!"  After more than 30 years in community college education, I suddenly understood the open door in a whole new way.

Today there are well over 10 million people enrolled in community colleges, thanks in large part to the open door (Phelan, 2000).  Funding for these students, however, is clearly shrinking.  Last year most states experienced an increase in students but a larger percentage decrease in state funds.  Washington state accepted 9,000 FTEs for which they received no state dollars, and California accepted 40,000.  This year, Maryland, with an 8 percent enrollment increase, expects a 4 percent decrease in state funding (Evelyn, 2002; Meyer, 2003).  Although state support for community colleges rose each of the last 6 years of the 1990's, student tuition rose over 30 percent during the same time period.  And the state's share of the colleges' revenues shrunk, from about half in 1980 to now a little over a third (Phalen, 2000).  Faced with these trends, will we be able to keep the open door open, and equally important, should we?

In order to answer these questions, policy makers need to decide whether post secondary education is a private good or a public good.  Clearly it is both.  However, if the benefits of the education accrue mainly to the individual, presumably in higher income, it makes sense to pass more of the cost onto the individual.  On the other hand, if the benefits are to our society in the form of a "smarter" workforce, then policy makers need to not only ensure that the open door stays open, but that it is inviting.  Everything we know about today's global economy, and everything we know about the coming jobs in the American economy would indicate that our nation, our states, and our local communities need more of our citizens pursuing more education.  Ironically, as our citizens pursue it in record numbers, pressures are building to keep them out.

It is an accepted fact in community colleges that a downturn in the economy results in enrollment increases.  In other words, more people seek post secondary education just as resources for funding it shrink.  Ultimately, classes and programs close out and prospective students are turned away.  The open door, therefore, is not open to those students who, for whatever reason, are last in line.  The philosophy of "first come, first served" is widely accepted in our society, but it is particularly dangerous to community colleges.

First of all, if community colleges continue to turn students away because of limited space and resources, we will ultimately be forced to maximize our resources by taking in students with the greatest capacity to succeed.  Approximately 40 percent of entering community college students require some degree of remediation, and we know that completion rates go down relative to the amount of remediation required (Oudenhoven, 2002).  By eliminating remediation, we could save $1 billion a year.  Although this is less than 1percent of the $115 billion spent annually on higher education, it is still $1 billion (Breneman and Harlow, 1999).  However, it is important to remember that community colleges do not have remediation because they are open door institutions; they are open door institutions because they offer remediation.  A recent study by the Department of Education reported that in families making more than $75 thousand per year, fewer than 60 percent of their high school graduates were highly or very highly qualified to enter a 4-year college.  In families making less than $25 thousand, only 21percent were considered highly or very highly qualified, and 47 percent were not even minimally qualified (Bailey, 2003).  Regardless of income, many high school graduates are simply not ready for college level courses, but without question, lack of available remediation would impact the economically disadvantaged most of all.  As many as half the students in remedial courses complete the remedial program and go on to complete a degree (Oudenhoven, 2002).  It is imperative to the community college mission, therefore, that under prepared students has the same access to post secondary education as others.          

A second pressure that threatens the open door is the attack on our desire to be "all things to all people."  If we cannot serve everyone, we will soon become selective in the kinds of services we provide.  About a third of our students come to us for credits to transfer to 4-year colleges.  Their academic needs remain fairly static because the university requirements for freshmen and sophomores do not change much.  However, over half our students want skills and certifications that qualify them for employment or an upgrade in current employment (Cohen, 2002).  The educational services we offer these students must match the needs of business and industry, and these needs are anything but static.  The choice to start a radiography program to meet a health care workforce need or to hire new faculty in general education should not be skewed on the costs vs. FTE side.  Workforce development is likely to lose in every case.  Colleges are already demonstrating an entrepreneurial ability to partner with business and industry to share some of the costs of these workforce training programs.  However, the reason a "smarter" workforce is a public good is because it enables business and industry to be competitive in our global economy.  Certainly a strong economy is a public good, and to ensure it, policy makers must ensure our doors stay open to an array of educational services that match, as closely as possible, the modern workplace.

When community colleges say they are "all things to all people," they are not just talking about education and training.  The open door has worked so well in our country that we have redefined the post secondary student, and accordingly, we have reinvented ways to serve them.  Currently, community colleges enroll 44 percent of all undergraduates in the country (Phalen, 2000).  Community college students are more likely to be poor, minority, working, single parents, and older than 4-year college students.  Unfortunately, they are also more likely to drop out than their 4-year counterparts.  Community college faculty, typically, have larger teaching loads than 4-year college faculty, and they have additional responsibilities as faculty advisors, with many colleges now having mandatory advising to increase student success.  Almost a third of community college students receive some form of scholarship or financial aid, and more receive some other form of support such as subsidized childcare.  Although most colleges and universities now provide education over the Internet, community colleges are finding an increasing demand for this alternative as students try to fit college around a busy work and family life.  Diverse needs require flexible and innovative programs.  If community colleges retreat from their "all things to all people" vision, they are likely to move toward a "one size fits all" approach to services.  This not only contradicts the open door philosophy of access for all regardless of circumstances; it does not match the needs of the society we are empowered to serve.

Another pressure that threatens to close the open door is the pressure of accountability.  If policy makers try to find the funds to keep the doors open, it is reasonable for them to expect that community colleges will be accountable for producing results.  The threat, however, is in defining the results based on traditional post secondary education, which has been around for a century or two, rather than on the particular role of the community college, which has evolved essentially in the last 40 years.  When most people think of higher education, they think of a linear path from admission to graduation lasting 4 or 5 years (Griffin and Conner, 1994).  Working from this model, it would also seem reasonable to measure a college's performance (accountability) by graduation rates, transfer rates, etc.  Not only would such accountability measures fail to take into account the myriad reasons students go to community colleges, it would not necessarily be in the best interests of our society.  Thirty percent of community college students have educational goals that do not include graduation or transfer (Cohen, 2002).  Of the 33 percent that list a certificate, diploma, or degree goal, many will meet their employment goals before completing their academic ones.  The reality is that over half the students enrolled in community colleges are there to increase their marketability in the workplace.  As educators or policy makers, we might value diplomas and degrees.  But the businesses and industries we serve value skills.  Furthermore, community college students are more likely to move in and out of college rather than move through it in a linear progression. This "zigzag" educational path, though perceived by some as a flaw of the students, the college, or both, can actually be beneficial to both the student and society (Griffin and Conner, 1994).  The student stops out of college and rejoins the workforce, or increases his or her role in the workforce.  Having had some college, the student has value added in terms of skills but also in areas such as quantitative reasoning and problem solving, which are products of a post secondary experience.  At some point the student returns to college, either in the same program or a different one, but with more work and life experience upon which to base education decisions.  And the cycle repeats.  We tend to focus on the student's behavior of moving in and out of college, without recognizing and valuing the fact that the student is also supporting a local, and very real, workforce need.

Community colleges have now been around long enough to chart the counter-cyclic pattern of slow economy/boon enrollments, boon economy/slow enrollments.  What we are seeing now, however, is different.  First of all, the decade of the 1990's saw a rapidly expanding economy, yet enrollments also increased, and state revenues to community colleges, as a percentage of the whole, shrunk.  Second, the downturn in the economy is not just a phase.  Some of the jobs that have been lost are never coming back, and the country is looking at entirely new industry sectors to reshape the economy.  Even if state revenues reach the surplus stage in the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that they will return to the lion's share of community college support they had before 1980.  Community colleges, then, have to continue to be creative in finding resources to accomplish our missions.  Policy makers, though, have to recommit to the open door philosophy of the community college.  The danger is not in the reality that there will never be enough money to meet all the needs of every person who desires to walk through that door.  It is in getting so caught up in thinking about the money we don't have that we forget why the door was open in the first place.

If asked why we have an open door philosophy in community college education, I can think of no better answer than to paraphrase my friend on the airplane: Because college makes you smarter, and getting smarter is for everyone.  We all know the impact we have had on so many lives, and we have our many individual stories to tell.  But policy makers need to be reminded that we are not just improving lives, we are shaping the American workforce.  Our economy needs everyone, and everyone needs access to resources that enable one to realize his or her full potential as a worker and citizen.  That is the essence of the open door philosophy. 



Bailey, T. (2003, Jan.) Community Colleges in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities.  CCRC Brief.  Community College Research Center. Columbia University: New York, NY.

Breneman, D. and Harlow, W. (1999, April 9). Establishing the Real Value of Remedial Education.  Chronicle of Higher Education.

Cohen, A. (2002).  America’s Community Colleges: On the Ascent. SIRS Publishing, Inc. http://www/

Evelyn, J. (2002, July 26).  Budget Cuts Force Community Colleges to Consider Turning Away Students. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Griffin, M. and Connor, A. (1994). Democracy’s Open Door: The Community College in America’s Future. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.

Meyer, E. (2003, Feb. 20). Community Colleges Face Budget Storm. Washington Post.

Oudenhoven, B. (2002). Remediation at the Community College: Pressing Issues, Uncertain Solutions. In Bers, T.  and Calhoun, H. Next Steps for the Community college. (pp. 35 – 44). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Publishers.

Phelan, D. (2000). Enrollment Policies and Student Access At Community Colleges. Education Commission of the States.