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Access to What?

Trying to reconcile what he sees as an ongoing struggle between institutional access and educational quality, the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education says its Board of Regents should consider the possibility of limiting enrollments at the state's community colleges.
Though Klaich’s idea of imposing limitations on traditionally open-access institutions is currently just a talking point and not a concrete proposal, community college leaders from around the state are more than eager to speak up to express their concern about the possibility of such a constraint on their admissions.
Mike Richards, president of the College of Southern Nevada, had a similarly framed, but more nuanced, opposition to Klaich’s thoughts of imposing enrollment limitations.
“Of course, it’s an idea that runs counter to the traditional mission of community colleges,” Richards said. “I think access and quality are related, but I don’t necessarily see them at odds. We do try to provide a quality education to our students, and we measure that in multiple ways. For many of us, it’s quality we provide them with even in difficult times.”
Still, Richards admits that his institution -- like many community colleges in nearby California -- does have a de facto enrollment limit because of funding issues. He estimates that about 5,100 students have been turned away from his institution this year because they have been unable to get into the classes they needed.
“I’ve maintained for some time that I have an outstanding budget for 16,500 full-time equivalent students, but I’m having to stretch that to accommodate around 22,000 full-time equivalent students,” Richards said. “The heart of the issue is that we can’t operate like comparable institutions around the country with our budget.”
Other scholars like Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, appreciate the dialogue an idea like Klaich’s can generate.
“It’s always good to ask, ‘Are we doing the best with the resources we’ve got?’ ” Bailey said. “At some point, somebody could say, ‘We don’t have the money and can’t fulfill our role, so let’s do something limited.’ Bringing up these questions is one way of confronting reality. At least it’s leading to open discussion about what it takes to educate somebody. At places where there are de facto enrollment limits, they are kind of avoiding that discussion. To some extent, I appreciate the explicit statement of the financial realities [in Nevada]. Hopefully, that leads to a discussion as to if people would be willing to accept limitations on enrollments.”
Such discussions, he argued, however, are complicated by an institution’s perceived pledge to its student.
“Some would say that when you take a student, you make an explicit commitment to them,” Bailey said. “But if you take more then you have resources for, then you’re rationing in a different way. All I’m saying is that there’s a transparency about this that at least adds something to the discussion which perhaps is less obvious.
"You can say, ‘We can afford 10,000 students and do a good job.’ Then, someone can ask, ‘Can you really afford 11,000?’ Then a discussion can go from there.”
The article "Access to What?" was published on November 30th, 2009 in the Inside Higher Ed Website. 
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