Book Review: Does Open Access to Higher Education Support the Goals of Social Justice?

financial aid, open access, open door, social justice

Guest post by Layla Azmi Goushey

Layla Azmi Goushey is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Louis Community College in St. Louis, Mo. She is a doctoral student in Adult Education: Teaching and Learning Processes at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Follow her on Twitter @lgoushey.

In Community Colleges and the Access Effect: Why Open Admissions Suppresses Achievement, Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson provide readers with a thought-provoking dive into the realities of the completion agenda, financial aid policy, and the unfortunate impact of open access on the most vulnerable students who enter community colleges: those who lack college-level skills and test into developmental courses. This book gives social justice educators a new perspective on issues of equity and open access to education in community colleges.

History and Context

Open access to education, funded by federal financial aid, has provided social and economic mobility to Americans since the 1960s. Community colleges have become a cornerstone of that mobility, and educators for social justice consider community colleges to be a vital aspect of our free and equitable democratic society.  College completion by degree-seeking students is a collective goal of all who are involved in community colleges, including faculty, staff and administration.  In addition, community members and leaders at all levels of our political system support college completion.

President Barack Obama, in his, 2009 remarks on higher education, affirmed this goal by calling for the United States to have the “highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020. Now more than ever, there is a push to find the best ways to support college completion for all college students, including those who test below college level in literacy and numeracy.

First Chapters

Scherer and Anson open their book with a chapter titled, “Open Access in Higher Education.”  In this chapter, the authors remind us that during the 1960s, in conjunction with the growth of community colleges, federal legislation transformed postsecondary education from being “an opportunity reserved most commonly for American’s affluent whites, to one extended to students without regard to race, gender, religious orientation, or disability.” They say that “Arguably, no institution in higher education has appropriately responded to society’s changing needs as the community college.”

The authors remind us that the community college is a fairly recent development in the history of education.  Prior to the 1960s, access to college was only for a select few.  In addition, we learn that the low graduation rates in community colleges that we have now were first apparent during the 1970s.

Scherer and Anson say that “As early as the 1970s, scholars began to debate the merits of open admission as unprepared students allowed to enroll in college-level courses experienced unconscionable rates of failure.”   Surprisingly, the roots of today’s developmental education and college completion conundrums began very early in the life of the community college system.  The initiatives that have been implemented from the 1970s until now have been attempts to support the success of all students and resolve the unequal achievement outcomes.  However, the authors posit that the open-access programs that are meant to support students who are not college ready may have severe economic consequences for those who are underprepared.

Open Access  

The core of the book, the one that social justice, open access proponents need to read carefully, is the chapter titled, “The Access Effect” which provides the most thought-provoking information for educators to mull.  In a section titled, “Perpetuating Inequity,” Scherer and Anson say that “Open admissions policy now serves to impact our nation’s most financially vulnerable by perpetuating societal inequity instead of eradicating it.”  This occurs, the authors say, because underprepared students have ended up using their financial aid to enroll in developmental literacy and numeracy courses before they understand the demands on their time and the level of skill they will need to progress.  Students who cannot complete a course due to these multiple factors end up having financial aid debt that must be paid back.  This puts them even further behind in their attempts to better themselves.

The authors quote Debra Bragg and Brian Durham who recently wrote in an article in The Community College Timesthat, “equity necessitates linking access to outcomes.”  In other words, don’t just open the door to learning, but help students understand what they can achieve based on their goals and abilities, whether that be a degree, certificate, the completion of one or two courses to help them develop professionally or personally, or an alternative route based on their self-identified cognitive abilities.

Financial Aid

Scherer and Anson’s explanation of the mechanisms of financial aid is also just as revealing.  Here I learned of the recent 2012 elimination of the Ability to Benefit provision in the Pell Grant.  The authors note that the provision allowed academically-prepared students who did not possess a high school diploma or the equivalent General Education Development certificate (GED) to establish financial student aid eligibility by taking nationally recognized tests.  The elimination of this provision has effectively closed the door for many academically prepared students who need the financial aid to have a chance to achieve academic success.

Advocacy philanthropy was another important concept that I learned more about. According the the authors, this term was coined in a paper presented by Cassie Hall and Scott L. Thomas titled, Advocacy Philanthropy and the Public Policy Agenda.  Scherer and Anson explain Hall and Thomas’s point that we have shifted from philanthropy that supports educational change through funding research to philanthropy “working with state and federal government.”  Scherer and Anson then explore how this practice has progressed through foundations with familiar names such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation.   The details are worth reading, not because of any negative light shed on these foundations, but because readers will find an excellent, thorough exploration of the context of the situations we currently face.  Scherer and Anson provide essential details that make Community College and the Access Effect a first-rate historical record of community colleges in transition.

Culture of Learning

The final (and as a faculty member, the most personally satisfying) recommendation made by the authors is to return to a culture of learning.  They quote Sandy Shugart, the President of Valencia College in Floridawho said, “Learning comes before completion.” In other words, if we value learning, college completion will naturally follow. However, Scherer and Anson recommend tightening entry standards into the community college and that is where many social justice advocates may recoil.  No, we insist.  The door must remain open to all students whose youthful socioeconomic and academic challenges might hold back from achievements they can attain as adults.

However, the authors do not intend to leave anyone out in the cold.  In fact, they state that

“Nearly three-quarters of the record 6 percent Fall 2007 to Fall 2008 enrollment growth of   freshman students in American Colleges – the largest increase in 40 years – was attributed to minority enrollment, students who are disproportionately low-income, as well.  If Americais to make progress on projected educational attainment needs communicated by the completion agenda, greater completion must (authors’ emphasis) be realized by low income students.”

So, the authors are not saying to turn students away. They instead are proposing ways to inspire students to succeed by setting standards and directing low-scoring basic skills students to free or low-cost programs where they are able to learn and develop their skills and knowledge.  This is so students can use their financial aid wisely when they have the appropriate literacy and numeracy skills.  Of course, this is easier said than done and there is always the risk that some students will find a closed door.  However, based on the situation we find ourselves in, which is capably and thoroughly described by the authors, with low graduation rates and millions of students in financial aid debt, individual student success and prosperity has not been achieved by a large portion of low-income students no matter how well-intentioned the system.

Coincidentally, as I was writing this article, I took a break and I walked to buy a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop.  On my way down the street, I turned onto a sidewalk at the same time as a young African-American gentleman who was heading the same direction.  Seeing that I was coming from the campus, he joked, “Did you pass your test?”  I explained that I was a faculty member.  He then went on to say that he had never finished his degree because he had failed multiple courses due to transportation and attendance problems.  Older and wiser, he was now afraid to take another course because if he failed he would no longer have financial aid.  At this point, he felt he was in limbo.  I encouraged him to talk to our advisors to find a solution.  I have had my share of lean times, and I know that one cannot always solve a transportation problem by taking a bus or catching a ride.  Sometimes, work schedules conflict with longer bus transportation times.  Other times, frankly, lack of transportation coupled with multiple responsibilities can take an emotional toll.  It can all just be too much.

Supporting a Culture of Learning

If there is anything more I wish to have found in this intriguing book, it is more detail on how to support a culture of learning in our communities. While the authors provide ten recommendations to shape the culture of learning, they are structural in nature.  For example, they recommend that the Ability to Benefit Pell Grant provision be reinstated, and they recommend that “Community colleges and other community organizations should partner more to meet divergent postsecondary student needs not well served by one organization alone.” While these are all good ideas, ultimately it is the students who must step up and take their education seriously, which the authors also note.  Student motivation requires emotional and economic support of the family and community. Addressing this change to family and community cultures will take money – from somewhere.

 As a parent, I know that it takes time, money and energy to maintain high achievement standards for children, to keep food on the table, choose the library and homework for my children over a chance to rest after a demanding job and upkeep of the home.  Families who come from generations of poverty, who may be hampered by real, imagined or unfamiliar obstacles, have a difficult time navigating these competing demands and unfamiliar academic and professional environments.

As Scherer and Anson note, this is not just an issue of poverty.  Students of means also do not always take their education seriously.  Still, I’d hoped to find specific methods to support Scherer and Anson’s culture of learning on the micro level.

Readers will find Community Colleges and the Access Effect  to be a deeply-satisfying read; a true learning opportunity to discover the depth and breadth of the transition community colleges are facing.  As a long-time social justice advocate, while reading this book I had several epiphanies about the situation low-income, low-skilled students face as they enter the open door of the community college.  We need to have a conversation about how we perpetuate inequity with our good intentions.


Scherer, J. L., & Anson, M. L. (2014). Community colleges and the access effect: why open admissions suppresses achievement. New York: Macmillan.

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