Officials: Community college ‘open door’ already partly closed

A possible decision to end open enrollment at the state’s community colleges might represent a philosophical change, officials said Tuesday, but in fact a lot of doors have been shut at some campuses for the last few years.

“It’s already happening,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Tuesday, referring to students’ being shut out of overbooked courses. “That’s true at the moment.”

Course availability is so limited at three community colleges–in Norwalk, New Haven and Farmington–that the schools effectively have restrictions on enrollment, Assistant Chancellor Mary Anne Cox said. At other campuses, there are waiting lists for some courses.

A decision to officially end open enrollment at all 12 campuses, being considered by the Board of Trustees to cope with a $44.3 million deficit over the next two years, could give the community college system a chance to develop a strategy for dealing with growing enrollment and limited resources, officials said Tuesday.

Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti said officials need to adopt a strategy to deal with this reality that the community colleges have reached capacity, so the door is not closed on those who have a real chance of benefiting from taking courses.

“There has to be a strategic approach rather then it being an arbitrary luck of the draw, or a ‘Did you get to the window first to enroll?'” he said.

David Baime, senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said community colleges across the country face this same problem.

“We have a tradition of having an open door. We will enroll anyone,” he said. “But there’s not always courses available to meet that demand… It’s certainly been exacerbated by the enrollment surge and state budget cuts.”

Meotti said Connecticut should reconsider offering access to post-secondary education to those who are destined to fail. Three of every four students who enter the community college system lack basic knowledge in math, English and reading and are required to take remedial courses upon entry into a community college, according to the State Department of Higher Education.

“There are students who are so not ready and have no ability to be successful in a college classroom,” Meotti said. He points to the fact that one out of every 10 full-time students who enroll seeking an associates degree or certificate will earn one in three years.

“College readiness is one of the biggest reasons for that,” he said. “The goal of the community colleges should really be to have the capacity to serve everyone who stands to benefit.”

The high incidence of community college students’ needing remedial courses is not unique to Connecticut. A report by the Community College Research Center found that 60 percent of community college students nationwide need to take at least one remedial course.

Baime said while it is unfortunate that officials in Connecticut are considering limiting access, figuring out a strategy makes sense.

“If you have a to do brutal triage and you have to limit enrollment, I guess this makes sense” to limit remedial education spending, he said.

Malloy said he has a plan to decrease the high use of the state’s community colleges for remedial coursework. He said he plans to propose next year that every high school junior take a standardized test to determine what courses they will have to take in their senior year to ensure they finish with a basic education.

“We want to draw down [the number of] students who are having to use their time and energy” on remedial courses, he said. “That’s probably the best way to get at this problem.” He deflected questions whether he plans to propose a standardized test for high school graduation.

The approved state budget provides funding for a proposal that would direct students in need of remedial courses to adult education programs. That $320,000 will launch pilot programs at four adult education programs in the state to provide 100 students with remedial courses and college preparatory counseling.

“We have to figure out a strategic approach to handle this,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford and co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee. “How can adult education help in a less-expensive way? Adult education may be a good option for us to look at.”

Cox said it remains to be determined what approach members of the Board of Trustees for the community colleges will take if they decide to cap enrollment — whether that will mean limiting the number of students in need of remedial education or whether it will be a first to apply gets in approach. What is certain is the board is considering a budget that calls for no increase in staff to teach additional courses and most courses are already at capacity.