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Access v. Success

Student Success Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Regions Region II
October 17, 2023 Michelle Ferraino Sean Watson

As we consider the pathways by which institutions of higher education build a robust and diverse environment, admissions process are the predominant tool to achieve this end. However, in the landscape of many challenges higher education faces, we seek to elevate the lack of support for minoritized or marginalized students through this blog post.

Especially in recent light of events of the Supreme Court Case, where the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action policies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University, effectively ending the consideration of race as a factor admitting students to higher education, admissions processes are going change at a rapid pace. Some institutions are looking for more equitable ways to recruit and enroll more diverse cohorts of students with constraints of race-neutral admissions.

You can imagine the many heartwarming success stories of having a student who persevered through adversity making it to higher education. But, in a world where higher education and student affairs is asked to do less with more, simply having students enrolled is not enough. To contextualize this conversation, it is helpful to consider what “admission” to an institution means. On one hand, it can be the administrative process by which a person joins the institution. This administrative process is packed with paperwork, student writing, transcripts, application fees, interviews, and anxiety for the student. Once this gauntlet has been run, some students might be offered an opportunity to enroll. For the casual observer of higher education, none of this process is surprising or groundbreaking. However, the concept of admissions, shifted to a more human approach, becomes one of a promise, not an offer.

If this paradigmatic shift comes to fruition, the stakes are raised, but the roots grow deeper. Certainly, most professionals get into higher education to support students, so this is not a radical shift, but it does require more profound connection to individuals who seeks to expand their horizons with our institutions. This, a lasting commitment to our students, is what divides Access from Success.

You don’t need to dig too deep into the literature to demonstrate the economic and quality of life benefits of a college degree, but the completion of class credits is not the sum of a degree. The magic happens in spaces outside the classroom, in relationships, in the interstitial spaces between formal interactions, so if a practice of admitting students is rooted in simply getting them in the door, higher education opens to a raft of challenges.

Although programs that offer direct admission can increase access, another issue that arises is legal considerations. As a part of most application processes, especially at the graduate level, many will ask a set of disclosure questions. These ask about disciplinary issues that may have been faced at a prior institution, or if an applicant has been involved with legal trouble, typically a misdemeanor or a felony. If a student checks “yes” to either of these processes, a student will undergo a special review process, often called “EXO” review where parties will carefully consider if a student is truly eligible for the program with their record, and whether the student is safe to be on a college campus. This is crucially important with certain career types, especially in health, law social work, and education; where many careers require licensure require background checks among other requirements to be licensed, or to even participate in field placements. Take for example, the field of education with Teacher Certification programs. In NY State with teacher education programs, students are required to be fingerprinted before certification, oftentimes before entering a public school to work, and undergo an extensive background check where they would identify issues that would legally prevent an individual from working in a School.

By doing direct admission into some programs, such as teacher education and certification programs, this is something that would need to be carefully considered. Since a student would not undergo prior EXO review to determine their eligibility, by directly admitting a student with a criminal record without scanning them first, we may be setting this student up for failure. This could happen as they complete a program, or start taking classes that they paid for, to find out once they get to field placement, practicum, or their final licensure process that they are not eligible due to their academic or criminal record. This could create a harmful situation for all parties involved where a student is paying for a program, they are not eligible for a career for, and the institution would suffer when the student is not retained, or from distrust in community partnerships by sending students who may not be sufficiently cleared. Outside of education, other careers will also look at a student records and deem them ineligible if they faced criminal charges or disciplinary action in prior institutions. A potential solution to this would be to pre-check students before officially admitting them, or require an application process for some programs, not all, or a questionnaire before a student is officially admitted. Although this may create some barriers that would prevent some students from applying, it could also prevent risks to the institution, and a student from completing a certification or licensure program that they are not legally eligible to work in.

Outside of legal implications, the nature of certification of certain areas can also present problems if direct admission is implemented, especially at the graduate or professional level. Returning to the example of Teacher Certification programs, NY State and several also requires, expertise in certain areas of coursework, as well as certain grade restrictions in said coursework. For example, to be a qualified Social Studies Instructor, the state requires someone to have taken in addition to their pedagogy and education related coursework, that they have taken approximately 30 credits related to social studies, fulfilling certain categories such as history, civics, geography, and economics. In other secondary school subjects, they have that requirement to their respective field. (I.e., a math teacher would need to take 30 math credits, a business teacher 30 business credits, etc.) They also must have a C or above in this coursework of expertise. The logic behind this is so that the teachers educating young minds in the classroom are considered experts in the subject they are teaching. Similarly, to the legal implications, implementing direct admission at the professional level could provide similar issues. A student applying for a program who does not have relevant coursework could complete the program and be denied licensure due to missing requirements and be set up for failure. This could be the case in other professional and license bearing programs as well. This can also create issues for institutions who are trying to prepare for accreditation if they are admitting students to programs that do not meet specific qualifications. Accreditation can have larger implications on an institution. Especially if accreditation is lost, institutions may not be able to offer certain programs, or be in jeopardy of losing the ability to allow students to use federal funding via the Pell grant or federal loans at their institution; services that many students need to be able to access and afford college.

These types of issues between access and success demonstrate the delicate balance between the state and institutional approaches to policy issues. Although this is an institutional issue, it has direct connection to state and even federal government policies as it pertains to professional licensure and state and federal funding among other considerations. Student-facing professionals and leaders in institutions of education need to seek this delicate balance between giving students and prospective students access to education and the resources institutions of higher learning can offer them, and determining as if institutions can truly support students and give them adequate chance at being successful. In a post-affirmative action world, direct admissions could be an answer to making the process more accessible, but that answer comes with great contemplation, bringing larger issues to the surface about how colleges recruit students, and how enrollment and student support need to be considered together to help students not only be recruited, but retained and valued at their respective institutions.