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Do We Really Have a College Access Problem?

Clifford Adelman

From Change July/August 2007

Anyone can get into college. The challenge is staying in college.

Sharita Porterfield, student
Cheyney University of Pennsylvania

As Harold Lasswell and his colleagues observed of the rhetoric of power (Language of
Politics, 1965), some words become magic, with "inexplicable powers" attributed to
them. "Access" has become such a word in the discourse of higher education. It's a
rallying cry, a totem, as we have been reminded since the beginning of 2007. In late
January, the New America Foundation included "A College Access Contract" in its
policy broadside "Ten Big Ideas for a New America." In February, the annual meeting of
the American Council on Education opened under the thematic banner of "The Access
Imperative." By March, the Congressional hopper had filled with three dozen pieces of
proposed legislation affecting aspects of college- going that some call "access," with
grandiose titles such as "Graduate for a Better Future Act," and the "America

This concentrated concern should be set, however, in the context of the National
Center for Education Statistics' comprehensive accounting of higher-education
enrollments: In 2004 (the most recent year for which data have been published) there
were 14.7 million undergraduates and 2.6 million brand-new freshmen in American
colleges and universities. That's a lot of people who seem to have had "access." So
what's the problem?

The problem partly lies in what we mean by "access." The sloganistic use of the term
implies that someone, somewhere, is preventing somebody from doing something in
postsecondary education. But what is that "something"?

I'd like to offer four definitions of "access," pick one that is most frequently assumed
by both pundits and policy-makers, add another category that is related to access,
then take the strongest national data set we have and show the size and nature of the
problem we face.

I take this route because "access" is only one of three major thresholds for students'
postsecondary careers. The other two are establishing sufficient credits to lead toward
a credential (sometimes called "participation" or "persistence") and completion of that
credential (sometimes called "success"). Between the first and second of these stages,
the actors and their responsibilities change: Completing the requirements for a degree
and ultimately graduating require that students accept a much higher level of
responsibility than they do when they matriculate. (This essay will not address degree
completion, since I've written a good deal about that in the Toolbox studies listed in
"Resources.") If we want to target our higher education populations more precisely and
design smoother roads to completing credentials, our terms have to be a lot more
Definitions of Access and Participation

So let's first be clear about what we mean by access. At least four definitions of the
term are currently in use.

Definition #1: Threshold access (a.k.a. "Walking Through the Door"). The first time
you walked through the door of any accredited postsecondary institution and stayed
long enough to generate a transcript record, you crossed the basic threshold for
"access." This criterion does not distinguish between entry into a community college, a
trade school, or a university. It does not take into account whether you enrolled for
three or 23 credits; if you walked out of the institution a month after you entered;
whether your high school grade-point average was 2.0 or 4.0; or even if you graduated
from high school. It does not register whether you are an 18-year-old dependent
student or a 38-year-old with two jobs, two kids, two cars, and two mortgages.

Definition #2: Recurrent access. By this definition, if you started a degree program,
left without completing, and returned to any kind of postsecondary education for any
purpose at any time in life, you had "access." Stretched even further, if you earned a
credential and, after some time (though it's not clear how much of a gap would be
allowed) you returned to seek another credential; you also had "access." This
stretched definition includes access to graduate and first-professional degree

Definition #3: Convenient access. Whether you first walked through the door or
returned, if you did so at a season and location of your preference, you had "access."
This definition sets a norm of rolling admissions and doors that open frequently in
multiple settings. Under the convenience rubric, if you decided on a Wednesday to
enter a postsecondary institution the following Monday and were denied entrance,
then you did not have "access."

Definition #4: Distributional access. If you entered, for the first time, the
postsecondary institution you wanted to attend or the type of institution that
somebody said you were qualified for and should attend; you had "access." Under the
distributional criterion, if you did not enter the institution or institutional type of your
choice, you did not have "access."

At this point we cross a semantic line into a world of active verbs such as "persist" and
"earn," where the student is the active agent. "Participation" means not only walking
through the door of any postsecondary institution for the first time but persisting
toward a credential. We usually mark this persistence by students' returning for a
second year and/or earning a sufficient number of credits to indicate that they could
finish the work required for a credential.

The Access "Problem"

I choose to use threshold access, the first definition, and the related idea of
participation, to assess the nature and dimensions of the problem we actually face.
Definitions of access that include recurrence, convenience, and distribution both
diffuse and contaminate the focus of the question. Recurrence includes people who
may have already earned degrees; convenience raises the confounding issues of
institutional capacity and enrollment management; and distribution adds a dimension
of individual preference that lies largely beyond the reach of public policy. To assist in
this analysis, I am invoking the Department of Education's transcript-based longitudinal
studies. These gold mines are like geographic-information systems. They tell us where
to find the students who are falling through the cracks, which should give us a better
sense of how to help them.

Policymakers commonly use the threshold or "walking-through-the-door" definition in

determining basic postsecondary access for members of a typical high-school
graduating class. In thinking about access, they picture their 18-year-old children, not
their 38-year-old brother-in-law with those two jobs, two kids, and two mortgages.
They are justified in this focus by the fact that roughly 75 percent of entering first-
time students in any year are either age 20 or younger or are recent high-school

With this reference point, our nation's access problem is hardly of crisis dimensions.
Using the U.S. Department of Education's most recent national longitudinal study that
followed students for 12 years starting in grade 8 (NELS:88/2000,"Resources"), 66
percent of students who graduated on-time from high school with a standard diploma
entered some kind of postsecondary school directly from high school and another 13
percent entered by their mid-20s, for a total "access rate" of 79 percent.

Yes, there are differences by race and ethnicity in this walking-through-the-door

access rate—81 percent of white non-Hispanic high-school graduates entered within
these timeframes, as did 73 percent of African-Americans, and 75 percent of Latinos.
But the disparities are relatively minor and should be fixable. For example, 14 percent
of the African-American high-school graduates ranking in the top 40 percent on a high-
school achievement index composed of curriculum, class rank, and test scores did not
continue their education even by age 26. At that rate, we're looking at about 7,000
students every year. It's not a big number, but you can spot them as early as the 10th
grade. It should be simple to fix the problem, correct? Chase them down, inspire
them, hold their hands, push their families, cut some deals--do whatever it takes to
get them into college.

Well, not so fast: What proportion of those high-performing African-American students

who didn't continue their education entered the active-duty military instead? Try 60
percent of them. The closest that any other racial or ethnic group comes to that
proportion are white non-Hispanic non-college-goers, at eight percent. So if you're
going to work on African-American access rates, one strategy must be to encourage
the use of education benefits under the Montgomery G.I. Bill provisions and the Army
College Fund. Higher-education folks usually don't want to talk with the military, but
given the substantial role of the armed forces in African-American life over the past 30
or 40 years, maybe it's about time.

For Latino students, the problem with those in the top 40 percent of high-school
performance is not access but rather the completion of credentials. (Ninety-seven
percent of that top 40 percent walk through the door into postsecondary education.
Yes, you read that number correctly.) To close the basic access gap for Latino high-
school graduates, we need to focus downward, on students in the 41st through 60th
percentiles of high-school performance.

How many such students are there, and how do we find them? About 7,000 Latino
students each year are both reading at acceptable levels in the 12th grade and have
gotten through at least Algebra 2. Again, this is not a large number of students, but
they're relatively easy to locate, since 83 percent of them graduated from high schools
in California. And when we find them, we need to inspire them, hold their hands, push
their families, and cut some deals--whatever it takes--and the gap will close a little

The more significant disparity in the walking-through-the-door rates among

traditional-age students is between on-time high-school graduates from the top third
of the family-income range (91 percent of whom entered postsecondary education)
and those from the bottom third of family income (69 percent of whom entered the
postsecondary world).

Our access-crisis rhetoric tends to make three assumptions about this gap: (1) that
these two groups of students are equally prepared to enter a college, a community
college, or even a trade school and earn enough credits to establish momentum
toward a credential; (2) that the only barrier for low-income students is inadequate
financial aid; and (3) that continuing their education is the highest priority in these
high-school graduates' lives.

I will not dispute the contention that the maximum federal scholarship (Pell Grant) for
needy students has been ridiculously low. Recent Congressional action and
Administration proposals are finally putting us on the road toward the goal of
increasing the Pell Grant from the current $4,100 maximum to the level of the average
tuition for public four-year colleges, about $5,800.

But I'll put good cash on the table in betting that the effect of the increase on walking-
through-the-door access--while positive--will be very modest. Even when highly
selective colleges such as Harvard and state university systems such as those in
Minnesota, Georgia, and Texas waive tuition and fees for students from families
earning less than $25,000, $30,000, or $40,000 a year, they would have to pick up
26,000 brand new lower-income students a year to close the walking-through-the door
gap by one percentage point--and there now is a 22-percentage-point gap (91 percent
versus 69 percent). And chances are that most of those 26,000 students would be
continuing their education anyway but starting in community colleges and other
institutions of lesser selectivity. In other words, the modest effect would be felt along
the distributional access scale, not on threshold access.

Where increasing the Pell Grant ceiling and offering tuition waivers might make a
difference for students from the lowest third of family income is in the timing of entry
to postsecondary education. Lower-income students are more likely than others to
delay entering college by a year or more after high-school graduation, thus seriously
diminishing their chances of completing any postsecondary credential. This is not a
threshold access problem but rather a "chance of success" issue. Only tough persuasion
and strong incentives can move more than 20,000 of these students into the direct-
entry column every year.
Money is the easy part; dealing with high-school academic opportunities and histories
is far more difficult. Here is what we see among those low-income, on-time high-
school graduates who did not continue their education: As high-school seniors, 67
percent were reading below the level of simple inference, and 71 percent never
reached Algebra 2. If you are reading below the level of simple inference, you will not
be able to read the math problem or the biology textbook or the history documents on
the Web or software technical manuals. Harvard is not going to accept students who
cannot read. Neither is the University of Texas at Austin, nor the University of
Minnesota. The community colleges may take them because community colleges know
more about how to fix the problem than do four-year colleges, most of which have no
clue. But there is no guarantee that the community colleges will enroll them either.

The low-income students who did not continue their education had the grace to know
who they were, even if all the august bodies crying "crisis!" or "perfect storm!" do not.
When asked at age 26 why they did not continue their education, 75 percent cited
academic reasons (poor grades, didn't take the right courses); 57 percent indicated
negative attitudes toward schooling (don't like school, don't see the importance of
education, have all the education I need for the job I want); and 37 percent cited
financial reasons (can't afford it, have to work to support my family, would rather
work and make money). I don't make these numbers up. They come from what these
students told the interviewers for the U.S. Department of Education's NELS:88-2000
longitudinal study.

The new Academic Competitiveness Grants--created by Congress in 2006 as a

supplement to the basic Pell Grant for low-income students who complete an
academically intense high-school curriculum--might help change these students'
underlying academic performance and hence close some of the access gap, but that's
something we won't know for a few years. What creates some uncertainty about the
outcome of this well-meaning incentive is the limited curricular portfolio of high
schools serving lower-income students.

Opportunity to Learn

The term used for this issue is "opportunity to learn," and it has been the subject of
major--and just--litigation. Part of the problem is finding teachers who can and will
deliver the curricular fuel in low-income school districts--urban, suburban, or
(particularly) rural. The very new "Know How to Go" public-service media spots,
targeted at eighth to 10 graders, deliver the right message at the right time--"Most
colleges prefer students who challenge themselves with harder courses, even if they
earn only average grades." But the message will bear fruit only if the opportunity to
learn challenging content really exists. And student motivation plays a big role. It's one
thing to offer challenging courses and quite another for students to enroll in them and
do the work of learning.

Which of all these features would assume more weight in a fancier statistical analysis--
family income, reading level, high-school curriculum or academic performance--is
beside the point; they are synergistic. But the locus of intervention is clear: We
cannot change family income or the educational attainment of parents, but we can
change the secondary schools their children attend. In short, public policy can
enhance the conditions conducive to participation, but it cannot determine the extent
to which students take advantage of those conditions.

The same is true when we deal with the problem that is more serious than the access
issue--participation, which measures the proportion of the population that, having
entered higher education, establishes sufficient momentum toward the completion of
certificates or degrees. Students have an active role in participation--they are equally
responsible, as adults, for meeting the efforts of colleges to include them in the
community of learners.

What is a viable indicator of participation in higher education? For all our attention to
"retention to the second year," time is not an adequate measure. Going back to the
national longitudinal study (NELS), 90 percent of those who walked through the
college door turned up enrolled somewhere, and at some time, in their second year.
But an unhappy paradox arises when one compares students' rates of temporal
persistence to the quality of educational persistence: A third of those students arrived
in the second year with fewer than 20 credits, having withdrawn from or repeated
three or more courses, and/or with academic-performance records that placed them
in the lowest fifth of grade-point averages. Of that third, 73 percent did not earn any
credential by age 27. There are no statistically significant differences in this group by
family income or race or ethnicity. Thus, all these indicators suggest that patterns of
first-year performance are more important to setting a threshold marker for
participation and eventual college completion than the mere fact of getting to the
second year.

When we ask what might have led to this low academic momentum in the first year
among those who enrolled for a second year, we find the same phenomena as we did
among high-school graduates who did not enter the postsecondary system at all. The
NELS longitudinal study data show that 46 percent of these low-momentum students
read below the level of simple inference in grade 12, and 48 percent never got as far
as Algebra 2 in high school. It is not surprising that, by the end of the second year of
postsecondary education, the 73 percent who ultimately earned no credential had
accumulated an average of only 14 credits and sported an average GPA of 1.79.

There is no question that we have a problem: Once students matriculate, the road
through postsecondary education is rocky. So how big is the problem? Let's be generous
and say that "participation" means earning more than 10 credits that count toward a
credential. With that threshold, the 79 percent of high-school graduates who walked
through the door of postsecondary education becomes 70 percent of high-school
graduates who actually participated. Further, the race/ethnicity gaps in persistence
expand from the 6 to 8 percent range to 12 to 14 percent, and the proportion of low-
income students on the road toward a credential drops from 69 to 54 percent.

Meanwhile, 97 percent of students who came out of high school in the top 60 percent
of their classes (on the combined measure of curriculum, grades, and test scores) and
entered any postsecondary institution directly from high school managed to reach the
10-credit benchmark. (Yes--again, you read that 97 percent correctly.) That there are
no differences by race/ethnicity and only a minor spread between highest- and lowest-
income groups (99 percent of high-school graduates from the highest income
backgrounds earned at least 10 credits versus 94 percent from the lowest income
families) suggests that there is an underlying "achievement template" that almost
ensures the meaningful persistence of prepared, direct-entry students.

That template suggests that we aren't going to see any improvement in the
participation of the bottom 40 percent of the on-time high-school graduating class
without changing their academic preparation. Over the past 15 years we have created
early colleges, middle-college high schools, and magnet schools by the hundreds, and
now perhaps 20 percent of our secondary-school students are in dual-enrollment
programs. But for the most part, these efforts reach students whose profiles already
destine them for successful participation in college.

One can go online and also find hundreds of pre-collegiate advisory and motivational,
mentoring and tutorial, as well as scholarship, programs devoted to low-income and
minority kids. But when one looks at the numbers of successful students cited in the
evaluation reports of these efforts--never reaching more than a few hundred people
each--it is obvious that we have yet to bring this movement to the scale that would
produce meaningful participation.

In short, do we have access problem? Not really. Do we have a participation problem?

Oh yes!

We can all enthusiastically join Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of
Maryland-Baltimore County, who exhorted this year's annual meeting of the American
Council on Education to treat students from low-income families in terms of "what
they can become." But if 41 percent of students in the lowest third of family income
who enter college but who do not earn any credential tell us at age 26 that they left
for personal/family reasons and another 24 percent offer mood and lifestyle reasons--
compared with the 18 percent who cite financial reasons--the problem we are dealing
with goes much deeper than access.

What it takes to help students become all that they can is hard work, very hard work.
If we're going to write a "contract" for participation, it has to be with students as
active players, high schools as active partners, and colleges as round-the-clock, tough-
minded outreach organizations that help expand students' language, analytic, and
quantitative skills both before they come to college and through every step of their
subsequent postsecondary careers.

Access is meaningless without that effort.


After 27 years of doing research for the U.S. Department of Education, Clifford
Adelman recently left government to become a Senior Associate at the Institute for
Higher Education Policy.


Adelman, C. "Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and
Bachelor's Degree Completion," (U.S. Department of Education, 1999).

Adelman, C. "The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School
Through College," (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

Note: The National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) began in 1988 with a sample
of 25,000 eighth graders. The NELS data files contain the results of four follow-up
surveys (1990, 1992, 1994, and 2000); interviews with parents, school teachers, and
school administrators; and results of general learned-abilities tests administered in
grades 8, 10, and 12. As with all grade-cohort studies conducted by the National
Center for Education Statistics, the NELS:88/2000 includes high-school transcripts
collected in 1992 and postsecondary transcripts collected in 2000. The data used in
this article all come from the NCES CD#2003-402 and its June 2004 Supplement.

© 2007 The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

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