Financial Challenges for Learning Assistance

A cluster of challenges face learning assistance centers with financial pressures. Ignorance and misunderstanding of learning assistance place it in a precarious position as campus administrators make difficult budget decisions. As a result of the perceptions of stigma and limited research on effective practices, the field has faced intense scrutiny throughout recent history. As a result, some learning assistance activities such as developmental courses are eliminated and their functions hoped to be assumed by four-year institutions with less selective admissions policies and two-year colleges. Some raise the issue of why tax dollars should be spent on academic preparation activities that should have been addressed in high school.

Public Tax Dollars and Learning Assistance

Advocates for eliminating learning assistance claim that students should have developed their skills and knowledge in high school and that therefore no need exists for developmental courses or other services at colleges, especially at four-year institutions. Why should taxpayers pay for something twice? Actually, taxpayers have not paid for such services even once. Depending on the national data used, between one-third and one-half of secondary students com­plete a college-bound program of study while in high school (Manzo, 2007; Perkins, Kleiner, Roey, and Brown, 2004). About three-quarters of high school graduates enroll in college (Adelman, 2004). The gap between those who attend college and the smaller percent that complete preparation for college demonstrates the need for comprehensive learning assistance.

The paid-for-it-twice argument has other problems. Secondary students who complete a college preparatory curriculum vary widely in their mastery of the knowledge and skills. Therefore, students passing enough classes to grad­uate from high school may still require developmental courses and other forms of noncredit learning assistance in college. Another problem considers the skill level of returning adult college students. Even if they successfully completed college preparatory courses in high school, atrophy of the skills and memory loss over intervening years require their access to learning assistance services (Richardson and King, 1998).

An important event in the history of U.S. higher education occurred in 1890 with creation of the College Board. Its purpose was to establish bench­marks for graduation from high school. The board believed that secondary schools would increase academic rigor through the benchmarks reflected in the Scholastic Aptitude Test. These benchmarks would ensure new college applicants could avoid enrollment in academic preparatory academies. Although the College Board is a powerful inuence in education, its quest for eliminating postsecondary learning assistance is unlled (Boylan, 1988). After a century of intense effort by many stakeholders, nearly 30 percent of all enter­ing college students enroll in one or more developmental courses in English, mathematics, or reading (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). Many others participate in noncredit learning assistance activities.

Rather than considering budgets for learning assistance programs as expenses, others consider those funds as investments for achieving institutional objectives. A large body of research and evaluation studies clearly demonstrates the impact of learning assistance on increasing student persistence rates toward graduation. Enrollment management organizations such as Noel-Levitz and others recommend implementation of comprehensive learning assistance pro­grams as a part of plans to curtail student dropouts and signicantly increase instructional revenues, far in excess of modest investments to maintain or even expand learning assistance programs (McCabe and Day, 1998; Swail, 2004). In addition to building institutional revenues through tuition payments by students persisting to graduation, the number of college dropouts and stu­dents with poor job skills have other consequences. Michigan estimated the annual loss to the state economy of $600 million annually because students dropped out of college and failed to develop needed skills for employment in high-demand occupations (Greene, 2000). Similarly, a national study by Phipps (1998) documented the positive impact of learning assistance on the national economy.

Excerpted from my recent book, Access at the Crossing:  Learning assistance in higher education (Jossey-Bass).