More than 800 students graduate tonight from Gateway Community College in New Haven. Many took their first steps into higher education through the school’s open door policy. But budget shortfalls could end open admissions at community colleges in Connecticut. Walk down the corridor at Gateway Community College and you’ll see a diverse mix of students – teenagers right out of high school, mothers in their early 30s, even senior citizens.
Gateway President Dorsey Kendrick says the school admits all students who wish to attend, though many arrive under-prepared. "Open Door means that any student who comes through our doors and has a desire to want to improve the quality of their lives, we will determine where those students need to start and we will work with those students to start at that point." She calls it a 2-way street. "It's opening the door for them to get access, then its closing the door as a result of their success."
Mary Alice Bruno, 21, arrived at Gateway in need of remedial help in English and Math. It took three semesters of developmental classes before she was ready to handle college-level work. Tonight, she’ll be among the graduates at commencement ceremonies. "A great accomplishment for me. I’m the first one out of my family to actually obtain a college degree."
Ashley Blasczyk, 20, describes an uneven experience in high school - some semesters she did very well, others poorly. After working for a year and a half, she entered Gateway. She says open admissions give all students a shot at higher education. "Well, I think if you put too many requirements, you have to have a certain GPA in high school or need to score a certain amount on a test like the SATs or something, I think it would ruin what community colleges are about. They’re about second chances. Redemption. Certainly for me, and for so many of my classmates. I’ve noticed it while I’ve been here.
But that second chance may become harder to grasp. There’s been a dramatic jump in enrollment at Connecticut’s community colleges, up more than 40% in the last decade. Recent budgets have held steady at 2008 levels. And despite the state’s history of fiscal support for higher education, community colleges say there’s still a nearly $20 million gap between what they need to serve next year’s students and money allocated. That, despite recent approval of a tuition increase.
At a meeting this week, community college trustees raised the idea of capping enrollment. Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor of the CT Community College System, says that would be antithetical to its mission. "We should be able to add courses as students come and demand them. But if we don’t have the resources to do that, its impossible for us to hire the faculty and the staff and to build the buildings and include the technology that education now requires."
Commissioner for Higher Education Michael Meotti says the state wants community colleges to serve all students who benefit from the educational programs. "Over the last five years, the trend line clearly at community colleges is that their enrollment has been going up faster than most other segments of higher education. It's been going up faster than say the general population in the state of Connecticut. Even probably faster than the number of high school graduates in Connecticut. Funding was helped for two years previous to this year by the federal stimulus funds."
But stimulus money is gone and enrollment has been growing faster than funding for about five years now. Meotti suggests there may be room to redefine what “open door” means: "Having an open door to an experience that simply can’t benefit someone is not a benefit. The question of do you have a small population of students for whom community colleges may not be the right place to deal with their educational challenges. That could be a part of dealing with the issue".
Meanwhile, graduating student Mary Alice Bruno says her parents moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico just so she could take advantage of opportunities like the one she’s had at Gateway. And when she crosses that stage tonight at commencement, she’’ll be crossing a threshold that until now was closed to her family. "My parents weren’t... really... I mean they tried and then the opportunities were shut down. And to me, it was just... It was hard, but you know I got through it."
Bruno will enter Southern Connecticut State University in the fall and plans to study social work. Student Ashley Blasczyk won’t be among tonight’s graduates, but not for lack of success. She’s preparing to transfer from Gateway to Amherst College in Massachusetts.