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The Open Access Dilemma

Reynold Essor was sure of two things when he got his high-school diploma last spring: he wanted to get out of Brooklyn, and he wanted to go to college. Earning a degree, his counselors told him, “can help get more money in your pocket.”

So he headed to SUNY Adirondack, a public two-year community college in upstate New York that describes itself as “a leader in the region’s workforce development, preparing the next generation of leaders for a bright future.” The bucolic campus included a comfortable residence hall, leafy grounds, a restaurant run by students, and even a zipline—all featured prominently on its website and brochures. Essor could apply for federal student-loan programs to help pay his tuition, and a non-competitive, open admission policy took the pressure off of his 2.6 GPA to win acceptance.

Less prominent in the school’s pitch were the relatively long odds of earning a degree in three years: about one in four at SUNY Adirondack, in line with the 21 percent average at all 1,462 community colleges in the United States. The national six-year completion rate stands at 39 percent, on average. Part of the reason is that community colleges, with their commitment to open access, admit millions of students each year who are unprepared for college-level work, even though they have earned a high-school diploma.