Access to life-changing education has been Pima Community College's great strength and its most important commitment to the community that has supported it for over 40 years.
It comes as no surprise, then, that its proposal to tighten up its admission criteria has generated a great deal of debate.
Under the proposed policy change, people wishing to attend the college will need a high school diploma or a GED high school equivalency diploma.
To begin a program toward a degree or certificate, everyone, including high school graduates, will need to demonstrate seventh-grade skill levels on assessment tests in math, reading and writing.
This sounds reasonable, but the issue is complicated both by the college's long history of inaction regarding its lowest-level students and a growing mistrust throughout the community as to the college's actual intentions.
The college has presented data showing massive failure rates in its lowest, pre-college level courses, known collectively as developmental education. It has argued convincingly that something needs to change because over the years tens of thousands of students have paid their tuition and exhausted their Pell Grant eligibility (federal grants that support low-income students), only to fail repeatedly, their college careers effectively over before they began.
But, as in most cases, things are not entirely what they seem, and this is where the mistrust in the community has its roots.
The simple truth is that PCC has known for many years that its developmental-education offerings were often inadequate and hurtful to many (but not all) of the students who needed them. Despite that knowledge, the college steadfastly refused to change.
When I began in 2000 as dean of Pima College Adult Education, my first assignment from then-Chancellor Bob Jensen was to chair a collegewide developmental-education committee and to report back with a series of recommendations. Among those recommendations was a proposal to move developmental education toward a skill-mastery model, and away from the traditional college model of two classes per week per semester, which the data showed clearly wasn't working for many students.
Despite the purported focus on developmental education in the college's annual plans since 2004, despite outside college accreditation reports citing the need for better alternatives for developmental-level students at Pima, and despite a multimillion dollar grant to assess developmental education and to make appropriate changes, to this day developmental education is delivered in precisely the same way that it was in 2000.
PCC has often cited the failure of local high schools to prepare students for college-level work as a reason for its new admission standards. Fair enough, perhaps. But those familiar with the college know that it has repeatedly and willfully failed the community by refusing to alter practices that represented a potential quagmire of failure for many of its most vulnerable students.
A decline in state per-student funding is one of the PCC's oft-stated motivations for changing its admissions policy. It is simply no longer profitable for the college to serve larger and larger numbers of students.
Unfortunately, that leaves the impression that failure was acceptable until it became an economic issue, and that impression represents another root of mistrust in the community.
Over the course of the last few years, there has been a great deal of talk about Pima becoming a four-year college. The merits of that are eminently debatable. If this admissions policy change is a precursor to that goal, however, it is dead wrong.
Because what is not debatable is that Pima Community College was created to serve the community-at-large as an institution of possibilities with wide-open access. For tens of thousands of people in our community and their families, Pima is the only real option. The way the future plays out for them will determine the future of our entire community.
In whatever action PCC's Board of Governors takes, it must keep and restore faith with the community around the college's founding purpose of access to educational opportunity.
Over the last three months the college has begun to develop a program called "Pathways to Pima" for those who will be shut out because of the new admissions criteria.
No one has any idea if it will work or if it will just fade away with the current controversy over admission standards. Given the college's history of inaction and inattention, the Board of Governors must insist and, ultimately, ensure that the PCC administration does its job and is held publicly accountable for all the people the college was created to serve before permanently closing the door on those who need it the most.
Greg Hart served was the head of adult education in Pima County from 2000 until he retired in 2008. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org