The Open Door to All: Can Community College’s Student Cohorts Truly Co-Exist?

The Open Door to All: Can Community College’s Student Cohorts Truly Co-Exist?

Marisa Vernon
Cuyahoga Community College

Open Access: A Melting Pot of Age, Experience, and Personal History

Within the state of Ohio, community colleges are busy welcoming an increased number of high school dual-enrolled students to our campuses. While community colleges have often served as the institutions of choice for high school partnership programs, recent changes to the former Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) program have nudged many community colleges to revamp these relationships in order to adhere to new statewide standards.

The Ohio Department of Education has made strides in standardizing the state’s previously widely varied dual enrollment programs, thus extending the higher education experience to increased numbers of high school students. This standardization benefits students, colleges, and school districts by establishing guidelines for program delivery, structure, and funding formulas throughout the state.

Perhaps one of the most profound details within Ohio’s new College Credit Plus program (hereafter referred to as CCP) refers to the population eligible to take advantage of the program. Where the former PSEO program cast a net reaching mostly students in the latter portion of their high school experience, Ohio’s new CCP model opens this opportunity to any college-ready student in grades 7-12.

While students still need to verify college readiness through placement testing, college admission standards, or other criteria set forth by the institution, communication of this opportunity alone has increased the number of middle- and early- high school students seeking entrance into Ohio’s colleges to earn post-secondary credits while remaining in the K-12 system. For some of the state’s largest community colleges, this year’s College Credit Plus enrollment is akin to the number of students attending a small liberal arts college. Given the numbers and an expected increase over the next several years, this cohort has changed the landscape of many Ohio college campuses.

Given the community college access mission, diversity of class offerings, as well as low tuition costs and ease of transfer, community colleges are often desirable partners for school districts seeking to expand CCP opportunities for their students. However, as community colleges begin to see an increase in minor students attending classes, campus events, and utilizing services, college administrators struggle to find a balance between minor populations and other student cohorts also utilizing the institution to achieve educational and career goals.

As mentioned in previous articles within this column, community colleges’ doors swing wide open, often providing a second chance to individuals who carry a criminal background. As one may assume, this sub population of the community college profile includes those whose offenses were of sexual nature, many of whom are required to adhere to state sex offender registry laws. While attendance at a community college can be an accessible route to rebuilding one’s life after incarceration, co-enrollment with an increased population of minor students may present a conflict with one’s probation, parole, or a long-term sex offender registry requirement.

As the average age of those attending college, and more specifically, community colleges, begins to drop due to increased partnerships with K-12 education systems, campus administrators are faced with complex questions that, in many cases, challenge the access mission on which community colleges were originally built.

Perhaps the most glaring campus safety question facing administrators at open access colleges is how to integrate an increasingly younger population into a learning environment that currently includes registered sex offenders.

In July 2015, one Ohio two-year college restricted a previous offender’s utilization of on-campus housing, based on the college’s existing housing policy. Hocking College admitted the student and permitted his participation on the college’s football team, thus allowing the student to pursue his education, but with limitations (Community College Week, 2015).

While some colleges can bar sexual offenders from utilizing on-campus residential services, many other community colleges lack on-campus housing. Given the absence of this service, community colleges may find themselves without options for restricting interactions between sexual offenders and the general student population. This scenario can present challenges for community colleges that seek to fulfill the role of community educator, while balancing the safety and risks associated with supporting the educational needs of a diverse student body. Which services, if any, present the largest risks and therefore should be limited? How can colleges identify these areas and plan policies accordingly?

The Court of Public Opinion

As community colleges, once open to all, grapple with the ethical challenge to both educate and protect such a vast array of students, the focus has fallen on the offenses that are primarily sexual in nature. Many colleges have been asked to further examine their admission and monitoring stance on the sexual offender population, however, other groups with criminal background do not appear under the same scrutiny. Why, then, has this particular cohort of the restored citizen population been under close review?

As mentioned above, one can make the connection between the increased number of minors attending community colleges and concerns about the safety of the college environment. As K-12 partnerships expand to bring more middle- and high-school aged students into the community college classroom, these partnerships have nudged student affairs professionals to re-examine existing policies designed to ensure student safety. Likewise, parent groups, community stakeholders, and dually enrolled students also apply increased concern, thus challenging the openness of the community college’s doors.

The debate over sexual offender admission and enrollment restrictions runs parallel to public opinion surrounding sex offender registries, sentences, and the permanent “label” associated with this subgroup of previously incarcerated individuals. As stated by Pickett, Mancini, and Mears (2013), “with the possible exception of terrorists, sex offenders in the United States experience a greater degree of punishment and restriction than any other offender group. Members of the public overwhelmingly support “get tough” sex crime policies and display an intense hostility toward persons labeled ‘sex criminals’.” Given this pattern, it seems logical that campuses may experience unique pressure from the community regarding the issue of sex offenders within the college environment.

Pickett et al. (2013) outline models that seek to explain the public’s negative response to sexual offenders when compared to offenders of other crimes. One such model indicates a strong form of solidarity between the general public and victims of sexual crimes, leading to protection of possible victims regardless of extent. Likewise, the other two models outline a public opinion of sexual offenders as “monsters” and thus any actions unforgivable, as well as a perception that sex crimes are prevalent and thus require risk management. The article, however, also points out that further research is needed to identify whether or not public opinion is justified when connected to recidivism rates and the outcomes associated with various sex offender rehabilitation methods.

An Ethical Challenge

Given the status of current public opinion regarding the perceived threat of past sexual offenders, community colleges may struggle to respond to increased pressure to restrict enrollment while also advocating for a marginalized cohort of individuals who may benefit greatly from open access to education.

As open access institutions, community colleges offer opportunity to restored citizens, and are viewed by community partners as an education pathway for those exiting the criminal justice system. This mission presents ethical and moral challenges for colleges drafting policies that maintain open access while attempting to diminish the risk of sexual violence on and connected to the campus environment. Review and creation of such policies requires multiple perspectives and vantage points, including those represented by Legal Counsel, community stakeholders, student affairs, administration, and, of course, the student body voice. While restrictions and admission review policies have begun to take shape around this issue, the voice of law enforcement, community agencies, and registered sex offenders themselves has, presumably, yet to be heard.

As community colleges work to negotiate these concerns and craft responses to minimize risk to other students, additional ethical challenges often arise. While some colleges may seek to fully deny the most violent offenders admission, other students with lower registration status may still be admitted. Likewise, with a current focus on sexual offenders, previously incarcerated individuals whose crimes involved non-sexual violence, drug trafficking, or theft may be admitted without review. In these cases, as with many student cohorts pursuing degrees, student services staff and faculty will be presented with ethical challenges associated with the advisement and career planning process for those with criminal pasts.

This challenge, not unique to the open access environment, demands that staff, faculty, and administrators learn as much as they can about the individual goals, motivation, and personal story associated with nearly every student occupying a seat. As educators, we play a role in helping students to identify educational options and choices, while respectfully helping those with potentially limiting backgrounds to identify alternative routes to meaningful employment. This perspective is critical when developing policies that limit access for some students, but also when identifying other cohorts who can be granted admission but may be barred from certain career fields, academic programs, and internships due to criminal background. Likewise, administrators, Legal Counsel, and other student support teams may need to examine which components of the student experience, such as student life opportunities, intramural or organized athletics, and clubs can or should be restricted due to perceived risk. Data and research presented outside of higher education, such as recent work in the areas of sociology, criminology, psychology, and other disciplines, may need to be consulted in order to inform strategies that protect some students while restricting the access of others.

Conclusion

As with many issues facing higher education, and specifically, community colleges, strategies to bar admission to registered sex offenders presents moral, ethical, and legal implications. As stated above, public opinion, increased community support for higher education, and closer partnerships between K-12 and college campuses have brought concerns about student safety to the surface. Administrators faced with these decisions should be encouraged to reflect on the mission of the American community college, seek consultation with Legal Counsel, and maintain communication with community partners in order to support those who may be barred access to the institution.

In the spirit of the community college mission, which provides access for anyone to improve his or her living, contribution, or obtain employment, creating links for those who cannot attend will prove a commitment to serving our communities. If our campuses cannot support those with certain criminal backgrounds, it will be important to provide an alternative pathway to meaningful education, employment, and a livable wage. After all, this is the core value of campuses that truly serve their communities.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your personal stance on admitting sexual offenders to community colleges to pursue degrees and other educational experiences?
  2. Does your view shift when considering those with non-sexual criminal history? Why or why not?
  3. How can community colleges continue to offer open access to education while still maintaining the safety of minors who attend college classes through K-12 partnership programs?
  4. What do you believe is the role of a college and its administration as it relates to student safety? Does this change when considering minors versus the safety of others over the age of 18? Why or why not?

References

College Credit Plus FAQ (n.d.). Retrieved February 22, 2016, from https://www.ohiohighered.org/ccp/faqs Ohio college will allow participation but will bar man from living in dormitory. (2015). Community College Week, 28. Retrieved from http://npaper-wehaa.com/ccweek;see 2015/07/27;c-2566151

Pickett, J. T., Mancini, C., & Mears, D. P. (2013). Vulnerable victims, monstrous offenders, and unmanageable risk: Explaining public opinion on the social control of sex crime. Criminology, 51(3), 729-759.

About the Author

Marisa Vernon is Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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