The White Entitlement to College

I will not mince words, or ease into this with a clever introduction. Juliet Lilledahl Scherer’s and Mirra Leigh Anson’s Community Colleges and the Access Effect: Why Open Admissions Suppresses Achievement (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) is a horrifically bad book. Its argument is incoherent; its attention to evidence selective; its politics abhorrent. While it may address an important question in contemporary American higher education, its attempt to answer that question is entirely indefensible.

I do not reach such conclusions lightly. As a social theorist, interpreting texts is central to my work, and I generally approach that with a generosity toward the author: they deserve the most sensible and charitable reading that the text can support, and my focus is generally on the value of the ideas rather than a quest for the authentic intentions of the authors. Rarely does this ever call for the kind of critique that I am about to offer. In this case, however, I believe that the only way to understand the authors’ argument and its implications is through an explicitly political exegesis, for politics—particularly, the politics of exclusion—is the unifying thread of this book.

“Open enrollment policy,” Scherer and Anson argue, “bears significant responsibility for the very large and chronic gaps observed between American students’ real academic potential and their actual development” (p. 4). They thus call for imposing a minimum admission standard for community college admission: Title IV aid should be limited to coursework at or above the secondary level (a current Title IV standard that they argue is routinely ignored) and open only to those students meeting a federally administered Ability to Benefit standard, which was permitted under Title IV rules until 2012 though administered by institutions rather than the federal government (pp. 132-133). By omission and consistent with the authors’ disparaging of high school graduation standards throughout the text, the authors appear to reject high school graduation, which is the current standard for Title IV eligibility (also widely violated at least in spirit, according to the authors), as part of an Ability to Benefit standard.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that conclusion in itself; it is an empirical claim that, like any other claim, can be evaluated by empirical testing. I do not expect that any empirical test of this claim would support it, but the point of an empirical claim is that one need not speculate on such matters because testing them empirically is possible. It also ties into a paternalistic value system that, while I do not share it, I cannot reject as beyond the pale of reason. The problem here is not the conclusion so much as the argument for it. The argument Scherer and Anson make is rooted in the claim that most students who would not meet such a standard are irredeemably unable to succeed in higher education, and would be better served by postsecondary vocational programs. They should thus be permanently excluded from “higher” education.

In spite of the fact that Scherer and Anson are making many empirical claims, they do not offer to test any. This is not a work of original, empirical research. There is no methodology, no hypotheses are tested, no data is collected. Indeed, Scherer and Anson do not engage the academic literature as a literature. They make no effort to systematically describe the findings of the ample research on any of their questions; when they do refer to academic sources they often take a single sentence out of context to support the point that they are arguing. One cannot even consider this a balanced consideration of the subject: the only counter-arguments that they raise are ones that they can decisively refute, introduced with phrases like “A frequently repeated, yet error-riddled, argument against…” (p. 129). The evidence that they do use is largely an assortment of personal anecdotes, opinion pieces, and think tank reports not infrequently supported by user comments from the web sites on which they were published. This book is a polemic, meant to defend a conclusion that appears ordained at the outset. It should be judged by those standards.

Developmental Math and Developmental Intellects

The initial evidence Scherer and Anson provide is the high rate of failure in developmental mathematics sequences, especially among those placed in the lowest courses. Citing a Carnegie Foundation study, they argue that “of every 1000 students entering community colleges, 59% tested into developmental math.” Among those students, “190 or 19% were placed in the lowest level of remediation” (p. 13). Certainly, there is some odd language about the statistics here. One wonders if “of every 1000…59%” reflects a failure to understand percentages on the part of the author or an assumption that the readers do not and will be more impressed because it is out of 1000 and not 100. Similarly, 19% of 59% of 1000 is not 190 but 112. I assume that this is an issue of language, not math, since it is cited as coming from a presentation by the Carnegie Foundation; the 19% is of the total, not the developmentally-placed students. But since Scherer and Anson see, in this case as in most others, no need to cite the original source of the data and this presentation is not publicly available, one cannot be sure that their numbers here are right, and these numbers are central to their argument generally.

Nine in ten of these students in the lowest level of developmental math will fail to complete the developmental sequence within three years. Since we know this will happen to 222,300 students annually (according to the authors’ rather suspect math), we do a disservice to both them and the taxpayers:

Instead of mourning the 30 percent enrollment drop of the lowest-skilled students in developmental education at Pima [Community College], however, it should be celebrated that students unable to demonstrate possession of basic skills equivalent to the seventh grade were not given access to the Federal Student Aid (FSA)-eligible curriculum, but provided instead with a host of resources and alternatives to help them prepare for future admission or for other kinds of postsecondary success. (p. 27)

They argue that admitting such students “spent thousands of tax dollars—of taxpayer money and usually some of their own—reaffirming the failure that the college could anticipate from further enrollment” (p. 3), i.e., that we know with almost complete certainty what will happen to these students, so we should not let them spend our money (and, incidentally, perhaps some of theirs) to prove college administrators right.

Here Scherer and Anson make two fundamental errors in using these statistics that undermines the argument from failure rates throughout the book. In one sense, their argument commits the fallacy of composition: that this is true of nine in ten does not mean it is true of the tenth. Throughout the book, Scherer and Anson take being “sentenced” (as they describe it frequently) to developmental math as making failure inevitable, as having “virtually zero chance” (p. 14) to succeed. Nine in ten failing is a 10% chance of success. That is non-zero in a non-trivial sense. It’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t harm the 90%, but that also harms the 10% by excluding them without cause.

In another way, they commit a fallacy that is increasingly common in the age of “big data”: that because we can predict the aggregate with great accuracy, we can predict the individual cases with equal accuracy. It is one thing to say that our measurement will get the aggregate right to ±5%. But we cannot be 90% right about an individual case; we are either right or wrong. The error rate applies to aggregates, not individual cases. In my research on higher education uses of big data, I see analytics typically resulting in naïve error rates of 80%. Using the authors’ numbers and assuming equal rates of false positives and false negatives, we would expect 395 students predicted to succeed in developmental math to fail. But we would expect 2,845 students that we predicted to fail to succeed, the difference emerging because we predict that so many more will fail. Those students matter, but I don’t see any acknowledgment of that from Scherer and Anson.

Scherer and Anson turn to the idea of embedded remediation next, arguing that it embraces a “right to fail” in which all students are admitted and thrown into regular math classes in which they cannot, as a matter of principle, succeed. Their failure is a reflection of these students’ innate (lack of) intellectual ability or being too far behind to have any hope of catching up. They clearly essentialize intellectual ability in a way that is inconsistent with virtually all accepted contemporary theories of learning. But they also have a frankly absurd understanding of the students in these developmental math courses. In a telling passage that foreshadows much deeper problems to come, Scherer and Anson argue:

[O]ne group is particularly responsible for the enrollment growth of students with the lowest basic skills at community colleges over the past 20 years in a number of states: students with intellectual disabilities (ID).

In 2010 alone, 562 students who fit the special education reporting category of “mental retardation” were awarded standard high school diplomas while students in that same category received zero certificates of completion, which in most states is a lesser credential created to certify accomplishments other than academic achievement, like duration of time in a program. (p. 21, emphasis in original)

They make clear elsewhere that they are referring to students with “more significant cognitive disabilities, like intellectual disabilities” (p. 81) and not simply those with more common kinds of learning disabilities that higher education has become quite adept in supporting—and has shown conclusively do not pose an inherent barrier to academic achievement. Such students, Scherer and Anson assert, do not have legitimate academic credentials. Theirs are of the “everyone wins” (p. 83) variety of award, a participant trophy that should not allow them access to higher education. Their diplomas undermine the legitimacy of those earned by “students who met state standards while enrolled in non-modified curriculum to legitimately earn the standard high school diploma” and represent “inappropriate deference to the demands of students with disabilities and their advocates” (pp. 84-85). Indeed, most of chapter 7 is a diatribe against preferential treatment for students with intellectual disabilities. Scherer and Anson conclude that these students are in “far from an ideal postsecondary setting” which necessitates separation from the regular student population (pp. 98-100).

The fallacy of composition plagues Scherer and Anson, as students with intellectual disabilities become the core of those placed into the lowest levels of developmental math throughout the book. And it is indeed an odd instance of the fallacy: 562 students in one state come to represent first all of the students excluded by admissions standards implemented at Pima Community College and then all of the students who should be excluded nationally: “Since Pima’s College Prep Academy would not begin until 2011, all 562 students with the diagnosis of mental retardation would have been eligible to enroll at Arizona’s community colleges” (p. 21), which enrolled 18,087 first-time students in 2011. By the authors’ figures, those 562 students could make up no more than 16.4% of the entering students placed at the bottom of the developmental math sequence at Arizona community colleges if all of them attended those colleges and so placed. Yet this unfounded generalization is used to make students with intellectual disabilities the key representation of students who should not be in college, with Scherer and Anson devoting an entire chapter to such students’ illegitimate high school diplomas and college admissions.

Of course this is absurd, first and foremost a relic of a time when the disabled—especially those with intellectually disables—were to be shut away from society and excluded from institutions of education created for “normal” people. The academic success of the intellectually disabled is at least as much a moral obligation as Scherer and Anson seem to think we have to protect people from themselves. It is an obligation toward which American society has made great progress, in spite of antiquarian attitudes like that of Scherer and Anson. The intellectually disabled are quite capable of academic success. Scherer and Anson need only look around at their institutions to undoubtedly see many examples of this. Their success is also, for good reason apparently, protected by law.

But whether the intellectually disabled can or cannot succeed isn’t really the issue here. In fact, most students even in the lowest levels of developmental education are of typical intellectual capabilities. Many have been out of school long enough that they have forgotten all but the most commonly used math (a problem with which, given their tenuous relationship with numbers, Scherer and Anson ought to have more sympathy). Many never took college preparatory math in high school to begin with, perhaps having no intention of going to college when they were in high school. Many came from bad schools or had bad teachers. Many lack confidence in themselves, created or reinforced by the tendency of many teachers to encourage students who struggle to simply give up because they just aren’t good at math. Many of them are succeeding in other classes. Few of them require “community-based instruction, work experience, family involvement, interagency collaboration, and postsecondary training [distinct from college-level study]” (p. 101) distinct from the standard higher education environment. None of those students have “virtually zero chance to exit the developmental sequence, qualify for college-level courses, and earn a two-year degree, due to intellectual ability” (pp. 14-15).

If the authors’ assertion that such students are the “group [that] is particularly responsible for the enrollment growth of students with the lowest basic skills” was true along with the frequency of students with the lowest basic skills, we would expect something approaching one in five community college students to have “significant cognitive disabilities.” Where are these quarter-million students? When the authors really look around a classroom of 30 students, do they see four, or five, or six students with significant intellectual disabilities?

Thinking through the basic mathematics of their argument should have raised a serious challenge for the authors. That it did not means at best that they are careless with their argument (consistent with the idea that this is a polemic not a study). Or maybe they, too, need to return to developmental math. But my fear is that they do, in fact, see this in their classrooms, because they see struggling students as intellectually disabled ipso facto. That suggests that the issue is, ultimately, not whether students have a condition that would be found in the DSM but one found in the authors’ judgments of them: a problem with the authors’ minds, not the students.

One final point about this line of argument: in a book ostensibly about open access, this argument is about developmental math, a course sequence offered at most institutions including many highly selective ones. Indeed, Scherer and Anson do not for a moment consider that the problem to which they devote the initial chapters of their book might be a problem of pedagogy rather than intellect. When pedagogical innovations such as embedded remediation are considered they are treated as having social aims that obviously could not work, empirical evidence to the contrary be damned. It seems much more plausible to believe that students who are otherwise succeeding are failing one course because of how that course is taught, and that students who didn’t learn the material when it was taught in high school are not likely to learn it using the same approach two years later. Their failure to consider this is to my mind, a fatal flaw.

Student Aid, with and without Race

Similarly, from the perspective of an argument about open access the four chapters on completion, performance funding, and federal financial aid seem to be a pointless digression. The Completion Agenda, performance funding, and institutional dependence on Title IV aid are criticized as lowering standards in order to meet graduation targets and increase institutional revenue. This argument fundamentally misunderstands the incentives these programs create, however. The Completion Agenda and performance funding (at least as the authors understand it) provide no incentive to lower admissions standards and considerable incentive to raise them, thereby raising graduation rates by improving the quality of incoming students and allowing resources to be concentrated on those who need help to complete. Hence, one suspects, the authors’ focus on academic standards for enrolled students, but this further complicates the question of what these chapters are about. The chapter on the Completion Agenda includes a lengthy passage of epithets (“accepted with open palms,” “megafoundations,” “completion mafia”) (pp. 31-32) that introduces what is one of the few useful sections of the book, a review of the connections between foundations and government that supports the Completion Agenda. But even this desperately needs even a simplistic understanding of how that relationship influences institutions and policy. There is little evidence in the chapters to support the insinuations about the effects of either the Completion Agenda or performance funding; structural incentives are taken as strictly causal and of uniform effect.

Equally perplexing, on the surface at least, is the chapter on Title IV fraud. Scherer and Anson argue that federal financial aid regulations are routinely violated in four ways: by awarding aid for students entirely in developmental programs, for students requiring more than one year of developmental work before they can begin taking for-credit work, and for courses below the high school level. All of these arguments assume that a student in developmental courses cannot be taking for-credit courses at the same time; otherwise their applicability must be seen as severely limited to at most a small subset of developmental education students. A fourth condition, awarding aid without requiring a high school diploma or equivalent credential, is violated in spirit by not specifically validating standard high school diplomas of students with disabilities, in which cases aid administrators should “have reason to believe the high school diploma is dubious” (p. 72). The authors offer no evidence supporting the claims that these are routinely violated, but that does not stop them from making the argument that one would expect here: these provisions protect both taxpayers from waste, fraud, and abuse and students from themselves by denying them aid until they are ready for college level work and by being tracked (“beneficially diverted”) to vocational or basic skills programs (“postsecondary education”) that they can complete as opposed to college programs (“higher education”) (pp. 75-76). One still must ask why this issue is unique to open access institutions, an question to which the authors offer no answer, at least not explicitly.

But at the end of this chapter, an implicit—and disturbing—answer begins to emerge. The ultimate section of the chapter on financial aid fraud is titled “Liberal FSA [Federal Student Aid] Award Attracts the Wrong Crowd,” and begins “For a number of reasons, community colleges have become magnets for some of society’s less upstanding citizens” (p. 78, emphasis added). The authors relate several stories of drugs and violence on one of their campuses. Four or five students in a class of about twenty students in a class taught no later than 1999 were wearing electronic monitoring devices due to criminal activity. One used drugs in class and went into convulsions. “Court-ordered offenders” are common (and, the authors note, really a pain in the ass administratively—my words, not theirs), and presumed to be receiving Title IV aid. Many community colleges are sites of violent crimes. The authors conclude that such students are not the “legitimate students enrolled in legitimate programs leading to approved postsecondary certificates or degrees” for which Title IV was apparently intended.

“The Wrong Crowd.” “Drug pushers.” “Court-ordered offenders.” “Bitter…refuse to engage…disingenuous.” “Severe psychological problems.” “Fugitive from the law.”

“Legitimate.” “Approved.” “Qualified.” “Genuine.” The right crowd.

And the difference is that one has race:

One author recently sent a student she was counseling to retrieve paperwork from another office across campus. An hour later he entered her office with his head lowered, and after she asked what was wrong, he reported with shame and a note of anger that he had been approached by two different drug dealers on campus a regular occurrence for young Black males on that campus, according to the student.” (p. 78, emphasis added)

To be sure, the authors say nothing about the race of the dealers, only of the student. But they do not need to. That they gave the situation race allows the story to function as a “dog whistle,” language in which race-coded features convey a message that will only be understood by those who share the speakers’ ideological perspective. Scherer and Anson choose to make drugs an active part of the world of young Black men. The contrast with the language in the next anecdote is instructive: a friend’s cousin, “an outstanding student and model citizen from a stable, upper-middle-class family…fell in with the wrong crowd…and had become hopelessly addicted to heroin” (p. 78, emphasis added). Note the passivity: “fell in,” “had become.” Even being a heroin user does not make drugs an active part of the world of people in the same social circles as the author; addiction simply happened in the presence of people from poutsude the author’s social world. He has no personal responsibility for his addiction; that standard, apparently, does not apply to the cousin of one’s friend. And his “stable, upper-middle-class family” does not have race, a characteristic usually reserved for Whites.

This makes much sense of the chapter that is the crux of the argument: “The Access Effect.” The chapter begins by arguing that open access leads students to slack off in their senior year, knowing that admission is guaranteed. Certainly, that argument is irrelevant to students who had no intention of attending college to begin with, and are returning well after graduating from high school. It’s support is mere plausibility, helped along with one anecdote from an author’s experience and the opinion of a high school teacher who was “feeling professionally crushed by the weight of being held responsible for unmotivated students’ test scores.” (p. 104)

The argument turns quickly to an account of unprepared students’ moral failings:

…missing executive functioning skills…failed for years to regularly exercise their grey matter…such a long history of undisciplined academic behavior that they truly find themselves unable to summon the will to apply themselves…lack the requisite grit to flourish when faced with the least difficult academic challenges…performance mimics those of students with low cognitive ability…unskilled, undisciplined, and/or unmotivated learners…apathetic…entitled. (pp. 112-116 passim)

They point to a survey of their campus faculty that shows 50% of students don’t do the reading; the most common reading difficulties were low vocabulary, low comprehension, limited topic knowledge, and failure to read. But there is no evidence presented about the incidence of actual reading skills problems: The failure to read is all the evidence needed to demonstrate these students’ inability to read. In the final chapter, these are the students who lack a culture—”America’s culture”—of learning.

And these students, too, have race. Many of the descriptions above are themselves dog whistles: discipline, will, and grit frequently map on to racial dichotomies. Scherer and Anson go much further, though. They mimic the common argument for welfare dependency, claiming that awarding financial aid without standards leads to students who don’t take secondary preparation seriously, leaving them dependent on low quality, open access institutions (p. 114). They argue that students who receive aid without academic standards routinely engage in disability benefit fraud (p. 116). Both are standard dog-whistle issues, long associated with race and class. The authors also make an extensive argument against affirmative action that, like much of the book, has little relevance to open access. They argue that affirmative action helps affluent blacks over “less financially capable, but more academically qualified, working class white and Asian students” by creating “bidding wars over the most academically qualified minority students to achieve student body race quotas” with the result that “blacks and Hispanics overreach, academically” (p. 119). In 2014, while the rest of the country was having an empirically informed debate about underplacement, Scherer and Anson were trotting out worn-out tropes from the 1990s about overplacement, relying in large part on evidence that was part of the Fisher v. University of Texas decision—a decision about affirmative action in selective admissions processes at a highly selective public institution.

Ultimately, open access itself has both race and disability, associated through a persistent association with the language of equality. The authors bemoan the difficulty of teaching in “inclusive” classrooms (p. 112). They speak of including the disabled in traditional classrooms as “a misguided attempt to engineer equality” (p. 85). The growth of community college itself is part of “the idea that social policy could and should be used to advance equity in U.S. society” (p. 9, quoting Lavin and Hyllegard) as part of “efforts to extend social equality to previously marginalized groups” motivated by “the equality-driven demands of the civil rights movement” (p. 9). All of these phrases are dog whistles, part of standard criticisms of the Great Society programs that link such programs to race.

One fears, in fact, that all else in this book is shorthand for race. Michael, Monique, and Breanna are three students mentored by one of the authors who not only should be excluded, but who would benefit from it (pp. 140-144). Michael was shot in gang- and drug-related violence to which he was exposed by a relative, resulting in significant disabilities. His mother, a drug-addicted prostitute, died of AIDS, and he never knew his father. He is, the authors note, smart enough to succeed, but his chaotic life did not put him in position to do so. He was destitute when he enrolled in college, shunted into it without regard to his interests, skills, or life situation. He dropped two courses and failed the others. Advised to pursue a basic skills program instead, he succeeded, but could not go any further than his high school diploma because he owed a Pell refund. Michael does not explicitly have race, but the first paragraph of his story is a catalog of dog whistle characterizations, made so not by the fact that they are true or false but by the fact that the authors felt compelled to mention them, relevance be damned: drugs, prostitution, gang violence, absent fathers, living with extended family. That the authors need to tell us these things about Michael makes it very likely that he is Black.

Monique and Breanna were saved by the author from the scourge of community college with a referral to short-term career training. Monique, pregnant with her third child at the age of 23, met with the author “with her jeans unzipped, unable to afford maternity clothes”; she knew “when her John Doe father died at somebody’s house that ‘they threw him away in a trash can'”; she dropped out of high school, pregnant, at 17. Breanna was also a single mother, one with “financial and childcare issues.” Monique was thrilled with the prospect of something shorter than community college, and Breanna felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities imposed by accepting a Pell grant. Both women, the authors are careful to note, are among the four most capable students in the author’s developmental reading course. But neither woman showed any determination to complete her degree. Neither woman managed her Pell Grant effectively. Both women, the authors are careful to note, are Black.

These are the poster children—infantilized through an absence of agency and a need for paternalistic intervention (note the absence of parents in at least two of these cases) in spite of all being in their early 20s—for the authors’ argument. One wonders, “Why them?” None are incapable of learning. But all are poor. And all are Black.

The Rhetoric of Exclusion

Stopping to review, we find a book that makes little sense: A book about open access is about developmental math, graduation, funding, and financial aid. It makes generalizations about the unprepared that are fundamentally innumerate and ignorant of decades of research. It takes an apparently unnecessary and certainly inflammatory detour through race at the crux of the argument. And its chief conclusion is that the solution to the problems of open access is found not in restricting admissions but in restricting financial aid.

It would be easy to be dismissive here. One is tempted (especially if one spends as much time on Twitter as I do) to simply conclude that the authors are incompetent and probably bigoted. But, as I said at the beginning of this essay, generosity is a key principle of interpretation. There is a logic that unifies these threads coherently, one to which the authors tie themselves even if they are not consciously aware of its roots and do not consciously intend its inevitable conclusion. It is a logic of control and exclusivity that divides primarily along racial lines.

Scherer and Anson follow a rhetorical strategy that has been central to conservative political movements since the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, and was fully articulated in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of 1968. The argument includes three components: a self/other distinction based on social groups in which the “self” group corresponds to the dominant group and the “other” group to some minority or combination thereof that is disparaged on the basis of the values of the “self”, a connection of the “other” to apparent losses (usually economic and very frequently related to purportedly high taxes) to the “self,” and a call for punitive policies toward the “other” that take away access to benefits and institutions.

The paradigmatic example is Reagan era-rhetoric on welfare. The race-coded language of welfare (“welfare queens,” “urban,” “lazy,” “unwed mothers,” etc.) created a dynamic in which poor African-Americans receiving welfare were an other juxtaposed with the self of the working White middle class in discussions of welfare policy even though the overwhelming majority of welfare recipients are White. It also excluded from the category of welfare “entitlements” those that were omnipresent among the White middle class such as Social Security and Title IV financial aid, and distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate uses of unemployment and disability insurance; “welfare” meant first and foremost Aid to Families with Dependent Children. African-American women were disparaged as unwilling to work, as having children irresponsibly with the intent of maximizing welfare benefits and failing to raise them properly, and dependent on the state; African-American men were portrayed as violent, nihilistic, and unwilling to take responsibility for their children. Welfare programs, as a result, were rife with waste, fraud, and abuse in which the “undeserving poor” took benefits that were paid for from the pockets of “hardworking taxpayers” (i.e., White citizens; note the association of citizenship with paying taxes). The solution was “to put an end to welfare as we know it” as then-Governor Bill Clinton put it during the Presidency of George H. W. Bush. The Clinton-era welfare reform was largely to program proposed by conservatives in the 1980s.

Scherer and Anson use this same rhetorical approach. We see a more complex other, a combination of the (grossly exaggerated, which is not unusual) intellectually disabled and African-Americans. There is a connection here, however, in that the authors early on call the underprepared by and large intellectually disabled, and then argue that African-Americans are disproportionately underprepared. This associates, if not fully equates, intellectual disability with African-Americans. The argument that African-Americans enroll in elite colleges based on quotas rather than merit and are overplaced even in community colleges can only reflect a Bell Curve-like mentality in which African-Americans are inherently intellectually inferior to Whites. At best, the authors’ arguments about African-Americans associate them with, if not intellectual disability, those students who “enter with academic skills so low that it would take years—not semesters—to prepare them well enough to qualify for and succeed with a reasonable degree of independence in college-level courses” (p. 15). We have already seen, in great detail, how this “other” is described as lacking the basic values of people like the authors such as hard work, discipline, responsibility, and academic achievement.

The language of otherness is consistent throughout the book. One way we see this is in descriptions of poor students as “them”: the contrast of “court-ordered offenders” with a friend’s cousin, the high school teacher who insists that poor students parents are “uninterested in their children’s academic achievement and engagement” (p. 105), the evidence about such students provided by “the officemate of one of the authors” (p. 108) or “a family friend who is a retired high school principal” (p. 111): people with a personal connection to the authors, a part of the authors’ selves, speaking about the other rather than allowing the other to speak for themselves. Most egregiously, “The Power of a Standard” is explained with reference to as nearly literal a self as could be offered by two adults writing about college students: one of the author’s daughters is used as the contrast with the poor students who cannot avoid failure (pp. 116-118).

But one also sees this in the near-obsession that Scherer and Anson have with legitimacy. There is a clear distinction between the college programs in which unprepared students enroll and “real” or “legitimate” programs. “For students who are first required to complete these developmental courses,” they argue in the introduction, “access is not to college, but to the possibility of college” (p. 3, emphasis in original). Developmental courses are not real college; developmental students are not “legitimate students enrolled in legitimate programs.”

The arguments about completion, performance funding, financial aid, and affirmative action all make sense in this rhetorical framework in a way that they did not in the argumentative sequence of the book. The intellectually disabled and African-Americans are harming people like the authors. Such people are, first and foremost in this text, taxpayers, and their tax money is being wasted by open access. The rules for Title IV aid, they argue, are “fiscally conservative regulations” largely designed to protect taxpayers’ investments in students from waste, fraud, and abuse (pp. 65-66) in spite of the fact that they refer to statutory amendments enacted more than a decade after the programs were created. The violations that Scherer and Anson assert in chapter 6 protect the taxpayers not only from intentional fraud but from wasting tax money when that policy cannot accomplish its goal, i.e., from spending money on people who cannot learn.

But people like the authors are also students and parents of students, and they are at risk as well. The lowering of standards both increases the (often unfounded) need for education among legitimate students and reduces the quality of it. High school diplomas that once “signaled to third parties that a graduate had demonstrated reasonable command of a state-required curriculum and very likely possessed traits universally prized by employers and colleges” are devalued by degree inflation when unqualified students receive that “standard high school diploma” about which the authors are so concerned (pp. 83-84). Legitimate students pay an “inestimable, but undeniable, tax on the quality of education offered at the higher education institution forced to lower admissions standards” (p. 106). And “less financially capable, but more academically qualified, working class white and Asian students” lose admission to better colleges to affluent African-Americans because of affirmative action.

The solution Scherer and Anson offer is a policy of exclusion. But it is one that relies on aid, not admission, to solve a problem ostensibly with admission. Again, this only makes sense within this rhetoric of exclusion, where the harm to the “self” group is central. They propose to exclude the “other” from title IV aid, first by requiring an Ability to Benefit test that institutions cannot control and then by limiting aid to courses at or above the secondary level (pp. 132-133). This would be matched by a range of “meaningful postsecondary options” (ch. 10) for both unprepared students and those with intellectual disabilities that would not, generally, be part of the standard community college curriculum but might be offered in distinct programs by community colleges, in some cases on the same campus. The exclusion, one notes, is institutional, not physical.

This exclusion is reinforced by how Scherer and Anson perceive the benefits of their proposal. Their solutions, they argue, free up resources that would otherwise be “unavailable for the support of proven, programs and students in desperate need of funding”; they use a battlefield metaphor to view education funding as a zero-sum game “where overall achievement is weakened by the practice of dispersing resources in a policy environment overcommitted to access and insufficiently dedicated to outcomes” (p. 171): each dollar taken to support those students who gain access for access’ sake is a dollar not spent to benefit “our” students who will actually accomplish something. “Honors students suffer,” they wail, as they then describe honors students as “cash-flush.” And capable students—students like the author’s daughter—will no longer study with those not capable of learning in a “real” college environment—”the Michaels, Moniques, and Breannas of the world” (pp. 176).

White Entitlement and Community College

To say that Scherer and Anson employ a rhetoric of exclusion is not to say that they are motivated by racial hostility. On the contrary, it is clear that common notions of racism motivated by animosity toward other racial groups is not characteristic of the argument here. The authors are very clear throughout the text that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds who have the requisite academic potential have not only every right to be in higher education and ought to be supported by both governments and colleges, but that they are also among those hurt by open access policies and helped by their proposed solutions.

Nonetheless, the authors’ charity toward some Black students is not proof that racism is absent from their argument. Contemporary discourse too readily reduces racism to violent invective, to angry, rural White Southern men spewing hate speech from under a bedsheet and in front of a burning cross. Such is a dangerously simplistic idea. Historically, racism has been motivated as much by pity as by hate. Segregation and before that slavery have long been justified as good for slave and master alike, and the dichotomies of different kinds of African-Americans‐in my lifetime the contrast made between “Blacks” and “Niggers,” one always effected by Whites and not those they propose to so categorize—have too long a history to say that the authors’ occasional recognition that the problem is only with some African-Americans absolves them of guilt for any sins they may have committed.

Scherer and Anson may or may not be racist in any particular sense of the word. I doubt that they believe that they are in any sense of the word, and have no reason to believe they harbor any kind of racial animus. But I am not particularly concerned with divining authorial intent or motivation, let alone passing moral judgment. My attention is to an argument. The authors unequivocally use the rhetoric of exclusivity in that argument; we must ask what that rhetoric entails.

The rhetoric of exclusivity that Scherer and Anson use is rooted in and put to the effect of maintaining what one might call “White entitlement.” Fundamentally, White entitlement is an ideology in which the purportedly natural order of things entitles Whites to order central social institutions such that they support Whites’ interests. This most often takes the form of direct White control of those institutions in both an administrative and a cultural sense, and directing them to both the promotion of Whites’ interests and the exclusion of other groups’ interests. One might envision cases, which a more detailed explication of the concept might identify, in which a limited tolerance that permits others’ involvement so long as White interests are preserved, but such cases are sufficiently rare that no examples immediately come to mind.

One should distinguish between “White entitlement” and what is conventionally meant by “White supremacy.” White entitlement and White supremacy do share the belief that the natural racial order entitles Whites to superior political, social, and economic power. But White entitlement is first and foremost an ideology of possession: the central social institutions are naturally “our” institutions and the outcomes they support “our” natural rights. This is not inherently an ideology of Nazi salutes, racial epithets, and burning crosses, though it by no means proscribes them. Many instances of White entitlement will tolerate violent hate, especially at the margins, and some will actively encourage it, especially when it furthers the protection of Whites’ entitlements or when those entitlements are under threat. But many other instances will actively condemn overt bigotry, allowing Whites to perpetuate their power while maintaining, especially to themselves, the illusion of racial equality. The “post-racial society,” which forbids the assertion of racial inequality equally to Whites and minorities alike, is a prime example of White entitlement: Whites may not assert overt bigotry, but minorities may not challenge their structural subordination, thus protecting White control of central social institutions.

The category of “White” in this framework does require unpacking. I use “White” as a shorthand for an intersectional concept that is primarily but not entirely racial. In essence, I want to invert Kimberle Crenshaw’s original articulation of intersectionality, which explored the marginalization of Black women within both feminism and anti-racism, in order to articulate a complementary conception of privileges amplifying themselves through their intersections. Privileged positions in racial, class, gender, and other systems of power intersect in central social institutions. Those closest to that intersection are most able to demand control over them and assert a right to favorable outcomes from them. As one falls away from the intersection one’s power declines with distance. Thus an affluent African-American may or may not have more power than a working-class White, but neither is their power inherently equal, nor is either as powerful as an affluent White. Such a system may still be justifiably called “White” entitlement, both because race makes the dominant contribution at an intersection and because the other power categories themselves have race (e.g., an affluent person is White and a poor person is not unless noted otherwise).

Viewing Scherer and Anson through an intersectional lens allows one to see the “our” in their argument (which I described above, with deliberate ambiguity, as “people like the authors” precisely to defer the question to this point). We have seen that, arguments about disability to the contrary, race is the central category for the authors. Those who have race are, by and large, categorized as the other who are to be excluded. Class also plays an very important role. We see the explanation of the Access Effect consistently addressed in relation to examples of impoverished students, and the solution, cutting off financial aid rather than imposing an admissions standard on all students, only applies to those who cannot fund themselves. Affluent disabled students, apparently, do not lower standards.

The racial-class intersection is not definitive, however. At least some low-income students of color have a place in the authors’ vision of community colleges. But those students need something else: at every invocation of them, Scherer and Anson qualify their participation on the basis of academic ability: “We have to bring our middle-achieving low-income students and students of color, and moving our higher-end students higher still” (p. 172, quoting Haycock). Affluent African-Americans are cast in the role of less qualified than the “less financially capable, but more academically qualified, working class white and Asian students” against whom they compete successfully (p. 119). No such qualification is required of affluent whites, however; such “cash-flush” students are assumed to be honors students. Thus the further from the intersection of race and class one is, the more one must demonstrate one’s merit in both intellectual ability and temperament. The closer to it one is, the more one is treated as entitled to participate in community college regardless of ability.

The contrast of the student addicted to heroin with Michael is definitive. The heroin addict is in the same social circle as the author, at the peak of the intersectional hierarchy (“a stable, upper-middle-class family” that is almost certainly White), and is portrayed as having lost something that he should have been able to expect:

[The student] had chosen to attend a community college after high school because he and his parents believed that to be the best place for him to get a good start on his college education. …The author’s friend said it had never occurred to her prior to their conversation that the community college was anything but a great place to get an affordable college education and it was clear she now considered his struggle with addiction less than a random chance. (p. 78)

Is this student any less deserving of his fate than Michael? Does he have any more of a right to an affordable, quality education in a safe environment? And yet the authors take such pride in having helped Michael out of higher education that they make “a moral case” to “protect those who are not ready to succeed from the devastating effects of accessing the funds without adequate preparation” (p. 121)—a moral obligation that will be met by delivering the same outcome up front, enforced by law rather than just probability, without the student having to go through the trouble of demonstrating their lack of merit. Why shouldn’t they do the same for the heroin addict, perhaps placing an income cap on attendance to make sure that he doesn’t “fall in with the wrong crowd” at a community college when he should have attended a highly selective institution, one appropriate for “an outstanding student and model citizen” (p. 78)? Why doesn’t he need to be saved?

In the world of the Access Effect, students without race (i.e., White students) from middle-class backgrounds are entitled to college. Michael, Monique, and Breanna are not. They cannot even earn college in spite of being capable of learning, in spite of being among the “most capable students in the developmental courses one of the authors taught” (p. 142). Those honors students who suffer because they aren’t exempted from institutional enrollment minimums (p. 173), those students who pay the “tax” of lower standards that set them Academically Adrift (which the authors cite on several occasions), even those children from “stable, upper-middle-class families” who become heroin addicts, none of whom have race: those real students undertaking real studies are entitled to real college without having to prove that they have an Ability to Benefit. They gain a presumption that low-income students of color do not.

This world is, ultimately, where Scherer and Anson take us, whether they intended to or not. In it, community college is a White entitlement. Good, upstanding, White, middle-class kids without intellectual disabilities are having their educational and professional opportunities ruined by violent young black men, poor single mothers, and “mentally retarded” students with illegitimate high school diplomas. Whites have a right to a good college education and good jobs after graduation. We might be able to accommodate some lower income students and people of color if they have enough academic potential and look enough like us in other ways. The rest can suffice with postsecondary basic skills and vocational training.

“The Access Effect” of community colleges, we must conclude, is that it undermines White entitlement.