John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Moving from “Access” to “Success”: Just What Exactly Does That Mean?

John N. Gardner

Fairly recently there has been an important shift in the language of open access institutions, which have long lived by the mantra that “access” was their ultimate goal. As a reaction in part to the criticisms on developmental education, and moreover, on high failure rates, low degree completion and transfer rates in the community college, a new mantra has emerged: open access institutions are now focusing on “success.” Does this mean that they are giving up their emphasis on “access”? No, not at all. So what does this mean? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

I think the focus on success means this:

That we don’t give up access

That access remains a core societal mission connected to social justice and upward social mobility

That we switch from equating our success as a measure of gross enrollments to the outcomes we achieve for our students

This means that the number one status metric must no longer be growth (how un-American)

That we become willing to pay an initial short-term institutional revenue price for a transition to success

That the ultimate criteria for decision making becomes not what drives enrollment but what are effective educational practices

That we stop viewing requirements as “barriers” to access

That we make mandatory as many high impact practices” as possible

That we develop new mantras. This means ending once and for all “look to your left and look to your right”

It means ending academic social Darwinism

It means taking more institutional responsibility for student learning instead of blaming the students for their failures. This is not the same as absolving them from responsibility

It means a focus on student success after matriculation as opposed to the various “success” measures of students in high school. In other words, the focus will be more on what we do for students after they enter college than simply recruiting students who are already advantaged to succeed

It means, as my friend Kay McClenney says so correctly: “students don’t do optional”—we must move from offering a smorgasboard of elective experiences to offering a menu of required experiences that increase the probability of academic success

It means not practicing negative self-fulfilling prophecies like: “Oh, our students would never do that because they are….”

Our language really does make a difference. People are led by the language of their leaders. This talk about a focus on “success” is encouraging. But now I am waiting to see if the leaders who are talking this talk will change the educational practices of their institutions to be consistent with this new mantra. Institutions focused on success really do behave differently than those focused only or primarily on access. We’ll see….

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