In education, the term access typically refers to the ways in which educational institutions and policies ensure—or at least strive to ensure—that students have equal and equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education. Increasing access generally requires schools to provide additional services or remove any actual or potential barriers that might prevent some students from equitable participation in certain courses or academic programs. Factors such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, perceived intellectual ability, past academic performance, special-education status, English-language ability, and family income or educational-attainment levels—in addition to factors such as relative community affluence, geographical location, or school facilities—may contribute to certain students having less “access” to educational opportunities than other students. For a related discussion, see opportunity gap.
Generally speaking, the widespread use of the term access in education, along with related terms such as equity or at-risk, reflects increased national attention to the needs of students who have historically been underserved by schools, who have failed to take full advantage of their education, whose learning needs have been overlooked, or who have otherwise “fallen through the cracks.” When used in reference to education reforms, access typically refers to school strategies or policies designed to remove institutional disincentives, impediments, or barriers to academic success, whether intentional or unintentional, or to provide the resources, social services, and academic support that certain students may need to succeed in school. If access is denied or left unaddressed by a school, students may struggle academically or drop out, learning gaps may compound or widen over time, students may graduate unprepared to enroll and succeed in a postsecondary-degree program, or students may be unable to participate in certain courses, school programs, extracurricular activities, or sports, among other undesirable outcomes.
The following constitutes a brief, representative list of the types of access that government agencies, districts, and schools may provide to students:
- Access to assistive technologies, accommodations, or modified school facilities and transportation vehicles that make full participation in school programs possible for students with various forms of disability (the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for example, establish minimum compliance requirements for schools).
- Access to equal opportunities in educational programs and activities regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, including extracurricular activities and sports (Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972 and the Student Nondiscrimination Act of 2010 are examples of policies that establish minimum compliance requirements for schools).
- Access to adequate health care and nutritional services, including free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches to ensure that children living in poverty are not attending school sick or hungry.
- Access to adequate public transportation to attend public schools and charter schools that may or may not be located near student homes.
- Access to preschool or kindergarten so that students enter school prepared to learn and succeed academically regardless of income level or a family’s ability to pay for early childhood education.
- Access to intensive instruction in the English language or academic language for students who cannot read, write, or speak English, and access to interpreters and translated documents for non-English-speaking students, parents, and families, including multilingual translations of school policies, academic materials, parent communications, event announcements, website content, etc.
- Access to counseling, social services, academic support, and other resources that can help students who are at risk of failure or dropping out remain in school, succeed academically, graduate with a diploma, and pursue postsecondary education.
- Access to individualized education programs (IEPs) for special-education students, access to mainstream classrooms and academically challenging content through inclusion strategies, which includes access to any trained professionals or specialized educational resources that may be needed to ensure that the needs of special-education students are being met.
- Access to advanced-level learning opportunities such as honors courses or Advanced Placement courses, dual-enrollment opportunities, or other programs that historically required students to meet prerequisites before being allowed to enroll in a course or participate in a program. (By eliminating certain prerequisites or other barriers, schools can increase access to more challenging academic content, stronger preparation for postsecondary success, and college-level learning.)
- Access to technology, including high-speed internet connections and adequate hardware (computers, laptops, tablets) and software (particularly learning applications) so that students have equitable access to the same digital and online learning opportunities regardless of their family’s income level or ability to pay for these technologies.
There are many potential debates that might arise in response to access-related issues in education. Perhaps one of the most well-known, high-profile examples is affirmative action, since affirmative action is, generally speaking, an attempt to increase access, whether it’s access to college for minority students or access to jobs for minority educators.
While the debates about access in education are both numerous and nuanced, many debates center on differing interpretations of equity—what is fair and just—and equality—what is applied, allocated, or distributed equally. For example, a school might choose to allocate resources—funding, teachers, staff time, etc.—equally among all students. In this hypothetical case, white, wealthy, and high-performing students would receive the same amount of school resources as minority, low-income, and special-needs students. On the other hand, another school might choose to allocate resources in ways that it deems to be equitable. In this case, minority, low-income, and special-needs students might receive comparatively more resources in an attempt to compensate for and overcome preexisting factors that might place them at an educational disadvantage. Some view equal resource allocation as equitable (every student receives the same level of resources), while others perceive equal resource allocation to be fundamentally inequitable because it fails to take into account the preexisting inequities in society that may have already adversely affected some students and placed them at an educational or aspirational disadvantage, such as racial prejudice, income inequality, or disability, for example.
College access is another potential source of debate. Some educators might argue, for example, that all students should be able to pursue collegiate education and that the only way to ensure college access is enroll every student in a course of study that prepares them to succeed academically in college-level courses when they graduate from high school. The failure to prepare all students is equivalent to denying them college access because they lack the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes they would need to gain admission to a collegiate program and earn a postsecondary degree. In addition, some may argue that educators should proactively encourage students to consider college, particularly students who may be less likely to pursue higher education, such as students whose parents did not earn a postsecondary degree or whose familial culture does not value or encourage collegiate education. Such strategies would be considered ways to increase access for students who are at a disadvantage in terms of college preparedness and aspirations. For a related discussion, see college-ready.
Others, however, might argue that college is a personal decision and that schools should not encourage students to pursue college degree if they are not interested in college, if their career ambitions do not require a degree, or if their family cannot afford college, for example. In this view, preparing all students for college could become inequitable because it “forces” students to take a college-preparatory course of study, it may discourage students from pursuing other forms of education (such as career and technical education), or it may inadvertently discourage students from considering alternative options (such as a career in the military or skilled trades, which may not require a college degree) because of the overt and implied messages students receive in school. In this case, equal treatment—all students being prepared for and encouraged to attend college—may be seen as denying students access because it allocates educational resources to achieve a specific outcome (more students attending college), which could divert resources away from other educational programs, reduce the perceived value of other options, and potentially stigmatize non-collegiate ambitions.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.