These are some of the ‘open secrets’ that block college completion for many people
Adult Learners

These are some of the ‘open secrets’ that block college completion for many people

Adult student Zaq Woodward studies on the Pasadena City College campus. Photo by Rachel Bujalski.

By Haley Glover and Leanne Davis

We’ve all heard about the hidden curriculum or the unwritten rules that college students must navigate to earn their credentials. But what about the “open secrets” — the official policies and requirements that act as barriers to student success?

One “open secret” is the longstanding practice of withholding transcripts in exchange for past-due fees. This practice, which effectively holds student transcripts hostage, recently came under scrutiny for being unfair and inequitable. Some schools and even states are stepping in to stop this.

What else might colleges find if they closely examined their policies and practices? Nearly 200 colleges and universities in 23 states are doing just that as part of Degrees When Due (“DWD”), a national, equity-focused initiative led by the Institute for Higher Education Policy to increase attainment among students who have some college but no degree. Participating schools are examining student data – often with surprising results.

Here’s one example. After auditing the transcripts of students who had stopped out before completing their degree, Shasta College in Redding, California, found that a single computer literacy course was a frequent barrier to completion. This graduation requirement, mandatory for some majors, was the sole factor preventing more than one-third of the community college’s students from earning an associate degree.

Similarly, Minnesota’s Anoka-Ramsey Community College identified a health and wellness requirement that was a frustrating roadblock. The course was a requirement for graduation – but was not part of the state’s core transfer curriculum. Students had long described it as a barrier to graduation and some staff even called it an “open secret.” Data showed that of more than 500 students who were close to earning an associate degree there, 54 percent were missing only the health and wellness requirement.

Data prompts action

Of course, no one questions the value of computer literacy or health courses. But there are other ways to provide this information without holding students back. When both schools discovered the negative effects of those course requirements, they acted quickly.

At Shasta College, leaders initially replaced the computer literacy course with “credit by exam,” recognizing that many learners gain computer literacy through their work and life experiences. Eventually, the academic senate removed the requirement altogether, instead adding an optional computer literacy course. Data showing that this course blocked degrees for large numbers of students convinced the faculty to remove it.

And while some Anoka-Ramsey Community College faculty felt strongly about keeping the health and wellness requirement, data from the transcript audits opened some eyes. A task force now is reviewing the issue.

Steps to get started

As we harness the power of data to affect real change, three steps are essential:

  • First, acknowledge these roadblocks. Policies and practices, even if well-intentioned, may no longer meet the needs of today’s students.
  • Next, explore the data, especially data disaggregated by race/ethnicity, income level, gender, and other factors that show different outcomes. Data analyses should be an ongoing exercise.
  • Finally, once roadblocks are identified, leaders need to act quickly, staying focused on helping students reach their goals in the most efficient way.

We have said it before – the hardest thing about going to college should be the learning. Policies and practices that make learning harder for students, especially those who are already struggling, must be identified and eliminated. It’s time to finally reveal our “open secrets.”


Haley Glover is strategy director for state action and equity at Lumina Foundation. Leanne Davis is associate director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and leads IHEP’s Degrees When Due program.

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