The Role of Open Access on the Function of Community Colleges


The Role of Open Access on the Function of Community Colleges

Lorrie Budd
Community College of Baltimore County

The Commission on Student Development in the 2 Year College is sponsoring this series to expose readers to the past, present, and future of open access institutions. Open access institutions are colleges that are nonselective in their admission standards. Primarily two-year or community colleges provide open access to students.    For many at-risk students with low academic performance, open access institutions are the only gateway for pursuing higher education.  With the pressure to meet new standards for graduation rates set forth by the American Graduation Initiative, the mission of open access is at risk.  Admitting students with little to no academic resources while dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates could force some institutions to movewhile dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates ents with the en access I away from their traditional mission and create academic standards that would bolster graduation rates and meet the demands of the Federal government.


With over half of public community colleges offering open access, higher education has become attainable for many who seek postsecondary credentials.  However, the concept of selectivity or lack thereof has created hurdles for community colleges.  Consequently, open access affects the function of community colleges in terms of student support services, and institutions must be prepared to provide assistance in a different manner than selective institutions.  The following analysis describes how open access shapes community college services, explores strategies colleges are using to balance the effectiveness of their services, and discusses the role open access plays in how community colleges address the academic, social, and emotional development of their students.

Open Access and College Services

The impact of open access on college services is evident from the very beginning of a student’s career at an institution.  During peak registration times, community college enrollment staff find their offices handling long lines, extending business hours, and even opening their doors when the offices are typically closed.  In order to accommodate students who are late registrants, many institutions have developed the trend of opening on weekend days prior to the first day of classes.  Additionally, many institutions continue to offer late registration periods that allow students to enroll even though classes have already begun.

The way open access enrollment is structured creates a domino effect for other services, such as new student orientation.  For example, because selective institutions, mainly four-year institutions, follow a traditional academic calendar, their admitted students register for fall classes by the summer months.  Therefore, they offer new student orientation initiatives in June or July before the students arrive in late August to experience additional orientation, such as “Welcome Weeks,” and begin their coursework.

Open access institutions, on the other hand, enroll students throughout the summer months.  Although some community colleges do offer new student orientation sessions throughout the summer, many operate on a schedule that sponsors orientation just before classes start.  Unfortunately, this does not always allow for proper preparation time for students, as they are receiving pertinent information only days before their classes begin.  In addition, for some students who late register during the first week of classes, their institutions may not offer orientation at that time, so they miss out on the success tips that their peers received just days before them.

Strategies for Balancing Open Access and Services

Because of information overload for some students and lack of information delivery for others, open access institutions have brainstormed strategies to ensure students receive pertinent information.  Some institutions offer “crash” orientation sessions during the first week of classes.  Other colleges have contemplated and even implemented measures that could jeopardize their commitment to open access yet foster student success, such as eliminating late registration, adopting priorities for enrollment, and implementing selective recruitment practices, as explained below.

Advocates for late registration explain that the extended enrollment timeline is a key component of the open access agenda.  However, late registration critics are quick to point out that this method is detrimental to student success.  Smith, Street, and Olivarez (2002) conducted a study that revealed registration time as a factor of persistence.  They indicated that 80 percent of new students persisted from one semester to the next if they registered on time, whereas only 35 percent of new students persisted if they registered late.  With such discrepancies in persistence rates, community colleges are beginning to debate the effectiveness of late registration policies.  In fact, some colleges have eliminated late registration and have seen favorable results.  Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, reported significant increases in fall semester success rates and fall-to-spring persistence rates (O’Banion, 2012).  Specifically, Valencia College boasts a 90 percent persistence rate for new, college-ready students and an 84 percent persistence rate for new students who are required to take developmental education.

In addition, Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, has experienced improved rates of semester-to-semester persistence for all students (O’Banion, 2012).  Sinclair Community College has also found that eliminating late registration has improved efficiency in other areas: the scheduling of courses and classrooms ran more smoothly; registration, financial aid, and enrollment services staff members did not encounter as many urgent situations; and faculty members were able to begin their classes with accurate rosters.  Such results are instrumental in the debate regarding the effect of late registration on open access, student success, and completion.

In an attempt to further increase completion rates, colleges are considering priority enrollment procedures and targeted marketing strategies.  For example, the California community college system suggested giving priority registration to students who have taken their placement tests, participated in orientation, and developed educational plans (Gonzalez, 2012).  While California is focusing on priority enrollment measures, North Carolina is focusing on the selective marketing and recruiting strategies of specific demographic groups.  Despite the fact that approximately half of North Carolina community colleges practice targeted marketing and recruitment, Morris (2012) found that these strategies have little impact on access to higher education or the demographic composition of their student bodies.

Academic, Social, and Emotional Development

Regardless of enrollment practices, community colleges still attract a diverse group of students.  In particular, as a result of open access, academically underprepared students are given the opportunity to pursue higher education.  Thus, this demographic represents a large portion of the community college population.  In fact, approximately 60 percent of first-time community college students are referred to at least one developmental course (Bailey & Cho, 2010).  Because admission is guaranteed to all individuals, including underprepared degree seekers, open access institutions must provide effective developmental programs.  Consequently, community colleges are paramount in promoting educational access and equity goals by fostering the success of students who may need to build their skills for credit-bearing, college coursework.

If institutions plan to continue implementing developmental programs, they must include other crucial components in addition to the various levels and sequences of academic courses.  But what components are likely to produce higher rates of student persistence and satisfaction?  The answer is simple yet can be difficult for open access institutions to implement: effective programs not only target academic skills but social and emotional development as well.  By facilitating connections to support services, community colleges can increase the probability that their students will see rewarding results and their graduation rates will meet the standards set forth by the American Graduation Initiative (American Association of Community Colleges, 2009; Astin, 1999; Levin, Hernandez, & Cerven, 2010; Summers, 2003; Willet, 2002).

Connecting students to the college and to one another can be a successful tool for student completion.  Studies have shown that students are more likely to persist if they are involved in the academic and social life of the college (Tinto, 1998).  Although some students volunteer their time with clubs and service opportunities, the majority of community college students are not involved in college life.  According to the Center for Community College Student Engagement (2013), 80 percent of community college students reported that they did not spend any of their time participating in college-sponsored activities.  This could simply be a result of the open access mission, as many students tend to choose community colleges for the flexibility that allows them to devote more time to employment and family obligations.

As a result, community colleges must find ways to ensure that meaningful involvement is incorporated into the lives of all students, not just the ones who choose to get involved.  Tinto (1998) suggested learning communities as a potential solution.  Learning communities, which consist of linked courses, are more likely to incorporate additional support and have faculty who encourage the use of and connection to college services.

In addition to learning communities, Tinto (1998) proposed another promising practice: localizing the needs of students through targeted and varying degrees of coursework.  If higher education can enhance student assessment tools to more accurately identify student development needs, then community colleges could offer different degrees of coursework.  For instance, some students might need to enroll in full-semester or half-semester developmental courses, whereas others might be referred to take one or two specific modules, meet with tutors, or participate in group workshops to refine their skills.  Of course, such options require student affairs staff to build up their support services.

Regardless of how individual institutions address developmental education, strong student success centers are essential.  Support services that focus on tutoring, supplemental instruction, and technology assistance must be well staffed, provide proper training to employees, and be open at convenient times for students.  Like many other institutions, the Community College of Baltimore County in Baltimore, Maryland, attempts to meet the needs of their students by offering in-person and online tutoring appointments during the mornings, afternoons, and evenings throughout the week, and hours on the weekends as well.  Furthermore, in response to the high demand for math assistance, the Community College of Baltimore County makes math tutoring available on a walk-in basis so that students may visit with math tutors without having scheduled appointments.


With open admissions, community colleges allow for the attainment of academic degrees, certificates, workforce development, specific skill sets, and personal enrichment.  Because community colleges make upward mobility possible for many, open access institutions must operate in a different manner in order to meet the needs of their students and preserve access to higher education.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the pros and cons of late registration at open access institutions? How would eliminating late registration affect the operations at your institution?
  2. Some critics of open access institutions argue that open enrollment policies often perpetuate the cooling out function, which Clark (2006) explains as the process by which ill-prepared students pursue non-transfer tracks, earn degrees in areas that will pay less, or even fail out of college. Therefore, critics maintain that open access increases educational disparities and hinders social and economic mobility rather than achieving equity goals.  Choose a side of this debate and support your perspective.
  3. Many two-year colleges do not have residential facilities, which often assist in easy access to co-curricular activities and learning. How can community colleges engage their commuter populations in co-curricular activities when they have so many competing priorities (coursework, employment, family, etc.)?


American Association of Community Colleges. (2009). The American graduation initiative:  Stronger American skills through community colleges. Retrieved from

Astin, A. W. (1999). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 40(5), 518-529.

Bailey, T., & Cho, S. (2010). Issue brief: Developmental education in community colleges (Prepared for The White House Summit on Community Colleges). Retrieved from Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University website:

Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2013). Standard reports for all students – 2013 cohort. Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program.

Clark, B. R. (2006). The “cooling-out” function in higher education. In B. Townsend & D. Bragg (Eds.), ASHE Reader on Community Colleges (pp. 55-61). Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Community College of Baltimore County. (2014). Retrieved from

Gonzalez, J. (2012). Education for all? 2-year colleges struggle to preserve their mission. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Levin, J. S., Hernandez, V. M., & Cerven, C. (2010). Succeeding in community college: Advancing the educational progress of working students. Policy Matters, 4(2), 1-11. Retrieved from

Morris, D. B. (2012). Community college selective enrollment and the challenge to open access. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

O’Banion, T. (2012). Late registration: May it rest in peace. Community College Journal, 83(1), 26-31.

Perin, D., & Charron, K. (2006). “Lights just click on every day.” In T. Bailey and V. S. Morest (Eds.), Defending the community college equity agenda (pp. 155-194). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Smith, A. B., Street, M. A., & Olivarez, A. (2002). Early, regular, and late registration and community college student success: A case study. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26(3), 261-271.

Summers, M. D. (2003). ERIC review: Attrition research at community colleges. Community College Review, 30(4), 64-84.

Tinto, V. (1998). Learning communities and the reconstruction of remedial education in higher education. Paper presented at the Conference on Replacing Remediation in Higher Education, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

Willett, T. (2002). Impact of follow up counseling on academic performance and persistence. Retrieved from Gavilan College website: /FUEVALD2.PDF

About the Author

Lorrie Budd received her Bachelor of Science degree in family and community services and her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Stevenson University in 2005.  She graduated with her Master of Science degree in counseling with a concentration in college student personnel services from Shippensburg University, where she was a residence director for three years.  For three years post-graduate school, she continued her residence life experience and served as an Assistant Director of Student Life at Loyola University Maryland.  Currently, Lorrie is the Assistant Director of Student Life for First-Year Experience at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland and is a student at Morgan State University, where she plans to earn her Doctor of Education.  Her interest in open access and student services stems from her current experience working with first-year students and her doctoral studies in community college leadership.

Please e-mail inquiries to Lorrie Budd.


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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