Institutional Mission Differentiation, Academic Stratification, and Reduced Access for Historically Underrepresented Students

Bastedo, M. N., & Gumport, P. J. (2003). Access to what? Mission differentiation and academic stratification in U.S. public higher education. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 46(3), 341-359. This article analyzes developmental education policy in Massachusetts and New York to examine recent policy decisions regarding the termination of academic programs, elimination of remedial education, promotion of honors colleges within each state system. A result of these policy decisions has been to increase stratification of programs and students within a public state higher education system as well as with individual institutions within the state system. The authors argue that more intense analysis needs to be conducted before systematic changes are made within education systems to avoid or at least forecast major changes in the stratification of student opportunity to attend postsecondary education.

Contextualizing the historic role of learning assistance, those who work in learning assistance programs neither determine admission criteria nor set aca­demic standards (Boylan, 1995a). Admissions officers, administrators, fac­ulty committees, and state higher education executive offices are responsible for those decisions. Once standards are set, however, it is the job of learning assistance faculty and staff to ensure students meet or exceed them. The need for learning assistance was created as soon as the first college opened its doors to those prepared to pass the admissions examination and those who were not. These criteria de facto divided students into two groups: those admitted normally and those admitted provisionally. Provisional students need addi­tional academic assistance and enrichment. As the upcoming history chap­ter documents, many students attending U.S. colleges in the 1700s and 1800s participated in learning assistance activities before admission as well as throughout their academic career (Boylan and White, 1987; Brier, 1984).

Nearly all institutions historically offered developmental courses. During the past twenty years, eight states have or are in process of eliminating devel­opmental courses at public four-year colleges. At the same time, thirty states rejected similar legislation (Abraham and Creech, 2000). These mixed results indicate that some states are mandating the shift of the courses from public four-year institutions to community colleges (Hankin, 1996). Shifting the developmental courses often occurs at the level of the campus or state system. For example, in Missouri no state legislation required shifting these courses. Three decades ago, the University of Missouri system eliminated the courses. State four-year and two-year institutions informally assumed them.

During the past quarter century, community colleges assumed primary responsibility for vocational programs, workplace literacy, displaced worker retraining, certificate programs, and others. Their primary role of preparing students for transfer to senior institutions expanded. Traditional boundaries between commu­nity and technical colleges blurred as costly technical programs were offered at community colleges. These expanded curricular responsibilities required community colleges to invest in more buildings, equipment, and faculty mem­bers for expensive high-demand certificate and associate degree programs in response to local needs of citizens and employers. Increased prestige of com­munity colleges and heightened stigma concerning developmental courses led a growing number of community college leaders to reject increased responsi­bility for them (McGrath and Spear, 1994; Oudenhoven, 2002). Community colleges are placed in a double bind to maintain their traditional open admis­sion access and increase academic standards necessary for the new curricular offerings. Some leaders question how both can be maintained while dealing with a large influx of students needing developmental courses formerly offered at four-year colleges (Perin, 2006).

Some policymakers direct students with academic preparation requiring developmental courses to begin their college career at junior and community colleges. These students might be accepted for transfer to the senior institu­tion if their junior college academic profile warrants. The transfer process from community colleges to senior institutions has numerous challenges. As a result, the students are placed at higher risk for academic failure than those who begin their careers in four-year schools (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991).

Considerable effort has been made with articulation agreements among two-year and four-year institutions. The transfer process is not transparent, however, and the rate of completing an undergraduate degree is lower for stu­dents who begin at a two-year institution than for those beginning at a four-year institution, even when controlling for other variables (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991). Barriers to success for transfer students include not accepting or requir­ing them to repeat courses previously completed and the turbulence experi­enced by students as they move from one academic environment to another. It is common for students to experience academic difficulty and earn lower grade averages as a result at the senior institution (Eggleston and Laanan, 2001).

With institutional resources, including learning assistance, students from a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds can be accepted and supported for academic success. Learning assistance, especially developmen­tal courses, have been significant resources for students of color (Boylan, Bonham, and Bliss, 1994). These services along with other institutional sup­ports increase the likelihood of higher student achievement and persistence toward graduation.

  • Abraham, A. A., and Creech, J. D. (2000). Reducing remedial education: What progress are states making? Educational Benchmark 2000 Series. Atlanta: Southern Regional Educa­tion Board. Retrieved August 19, 2004, from
  • Boylan, H. R. (1995a). Making the case for developmental education. Research in Develop­mental Education, 12(2), 1–4.
  • Boylan, H. R., and White, W. G., Jr. (1987). Educating all the nation’s people: The historical roots of developmental education. Part I. Review of Research in Developmental Education, 4(4), 1–4.
  • Brier, E. (1984). Bridging the academic preparation gap: An historical view. Journal of Devel­opmental Education, 8(1), 2–5.
  • Eggleston, L. E., and Laanan, F. S. (2001). Making the transition to the senior institution. In F. S. Laanan (Ed.), Transfer students: Trends and issues. New Directions for Community Colleges, no. 114, pp. 87–97. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • McGrath, D., and Spear, M. B. (1994). The remediation of the community college. In J. L. Ratcliff, S. Schwarz, and L. H. Ebbers (Eds.). Community colleges (pp. 217–228). Need-ham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.
  • Oudenhoven, B. (2002). Remediation at the community college: Pressing issues, uncertain solutions. In T. H. Bers and H. D. Calhoun (Eds.), New steps for the community college. New Directions for Community Colleges, no. 117. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Pascarella, E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Perin, D. (2006). Can community colleges protect both access and standards? The problem of remediation. Teachers College Record, 108(3), 339–373.