Accessing “Access”

I remember the first time I heard “access” used as a verb. It was probably 1993 and I was giving a presentation about Amherst to a group of parents and students along with an undergraduate assistant. When I turned the session over to him, he said he liked the way that he could easily “access professors” on campus. Although I’m used to it now, it really struck me then as a new way to think about relationships and connections. “Accessing” implies no intermediate steps between one and the other, while “having access to professors” assumes a few.

Nowadays, I’m surrounded by the word in many contexts, most often in terms of helping underrepresented students gain access to college educations. I spend a lot of time with underserved students and their families, so we talk about gaining access to college information, the application process, and college in general. I hear it and see it used a lot (constantly, really) at conferences, in College Board advertisements for itself, and whenever going to college is involved.

Although providing “access” to college is a good thing, we use the word so often it has lost its effectiveness. It needs to be used clearly and directly, not vaguely or decoratively. It’s also important to understand its context.

From the perspective of a college or university, “access” means giving underrepresented students the opportunity to attend their institutions. That includes providing an appropriate amount of financial aid and on-campus support. But that’s really “micro-access”: Any individual institution’s record of enabling underrepresented students to apply and enroll. Most of those institutions, including the “Empyrean” schools, can legitimately claim they successfully support access by showing how the numbers of those students have risen over the years on their campuses. But that’s just for their specific campuses.

iuMost institutions can’t afford to do what the Empyreans can do, as much as they would like to. Very few can provide “no-loan” financial aid packages or full-need scholarships for students with few resources, no matter how good they are. Even state institutions, founded specifically to provide low-cost educations to their citizens, are barely worthy of the name, having seen their funding from the state plunge to as little as 18 percent. Access in its micro- sense only helps a small proportion of eligible, college-going, underrepresented students.

When the institutions of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success proclaim their support for “access,” for example, they’re really talking about micro-access, since collectively they enroll a tiny proportion of students that in turn makes up a tiny proportion of all the students attending college. However many underrepresented students gain access to these schools, it’s still not a very large percentage of the overall population of underrepresented students. A new, very complex application system that it claims will expand access really does nothing to address anything except the micro-access for each member.

“Macro-access” means raising the percentage of underrepresented students in all post-secondary institutions to levels that adequately represent them and their aspirations. An effort toward “macro-access” would enable every college and university to enroll underrepresented students, not just those who can afford to.

imagesTo properly support macro-access, for example, we should turn our support and attention to the many colleges and universities that accept well over half of their applicants and who proudly serve their local and regional populations. While most of them do not have the cachet of the Empyreans we mostly hear about, they are the ones doing the work of access in its broadest sense, despite struggling with financial, social, and cultural issues of supporting their students. While praise is often heaped on the competitive colleges when they improve their micro-accessibility, it should perhaps be more measured when looked at in a “macro-” context.

A true drive toward macro-access, which would benefit all students and all institutions, would include a Coalition of the wealthiest colleges creating a pool of funds from a tiny percentage of their own endowments. Poorer colleges could draw on these funds as they recruited and enrolled more underrepresented students. (I have written about this in previous posts.) This would be a genuine attempt at macro-access. Crowing about micro-access while letting people think it’s macro-access is disingenuous; creating an entirely new and more complex system of college application to satisfy their own desires while claiming to be for macro-access is insulting.

While I don’t accuse the Empyreans of bad faith, necessarily, I do believe their recent efforts have been remarkably short-sighted and more self-interested than communally oriented. In recent days, even Harvard has expressed some reservations about the current Coalition, of which it is a member.

So let’s be clear when we talk about “access” to college for underrepresented students. It’s great for individual institutions to improve their own records on that score, but when considered in the “macro” sense, are they doing enough to ensure the larger social goal of genuine access for all who want a college education?