For some students, academics isn't a strength but they still have career goals that require a higher education. Or maybe a student isn't quite ready for a competitive four-year college but still wants to work towards earning a degree. Students who feel this way may benefit from an open enrollment college. Find out how open enrollment works and get expert advice to help you decide if this is the right educational path for you.
Open enrollment, sometimes called open admission, means a college's only admission criteria is that students have a high school diploma or GED. That's right – the school will accept all applicants with proof of successful high school completion or the equivalent. Space may be limited, though, so if there are more applicants than available seats, some may be waitlisted.
Most community colleges have open admission since they're public institutions with the goal of making an associate degree affordable for all students. Many for-profit colleges also typically use open enrollment. Some four-year public universities and a handful of private colleges — many of them religious in nature — also have open admission policies.
Although open enrollment grants admission to anyone with a diploma, there's still a process to follow. In most cases, here's what you'll need to complete and submit by the college's stated application deadline:
Considering an open enrollment college, but don't know where to start? The following list of colleges have an open admissions policy and also offer online learning opportunities.
Open enrollment has several advantages for certain candidates so if you find yourself gravitating to some of the points below, an open enrollment college might be right for you:
With the exception of some for-profit colleges, open admission schools are typically more affordable than schools with selective admission policies. That's because they're part of a larger movement to increase access to college education, particularly for students from low-income families.
Many students break into a cold sweat just thinking of applying to college, worried a "no" will ruin their future or a bad SAT score will sink their chances. Admissions season can be especially overwhelming for students in their senior year of high school who are balancing classes and extracurricular activities all while also preparing to transition into young adulthood. Open enrollment can alleviate some of the stress.
Not all students are rock stars, and that's OK – some do alright, while others need a little more support. Students with less than stellar high school grades may be more productive – and comfortable – at an open enrollment college, where the environment isn't competitive and coursework is challenging but not impossible. Attending an open enrollment college first can also be a great way to prepare for a more selective four-year college.
Open enrollment schools attract all types of students, which means everyone brings a wide variety of life experiences and perspectives into every class discussion and group project. Those who enroll can benefit from learning alongside a diverse set of peers.
No. While the overwhelming majority of for-profit colleges are open enrollment, not all open enrollment colleges are for-profit. Most community colleges are open enrollment, as are some public and private universities.
It may be easier to get into an open enrollment college, but that doesn't necessarily mean the actual work is easy once you start. College coursework is challenging and rigorous at any properly accredited school, regardless of whether its open enrollment or not. Also, regionally accredited colleges typically accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited colleges, and this wouldn't be the case if there were any doubts about the quality of education.
That really depends on the individual student. Some may be more prepared than others, but colleges do their best to place students in appropriate classes, based on high school GPA and/or placement test results. Some students may need to start off in remedial courses without credit before moving on to regular credit classes. (In fact, remedial coursework is common even at public and private institutions without open enrollment policies.)
Yes. The financial aid process is identical, as long as the school is accredited by a recognized agency. However, students receiving federal financial aid at any college are required to meet mandated Satisfactory Academic Progress standards to keep their aid. This means students must pass at least two-thirds of their courses and be on pace to finish their degree within 150 percent of the typical time frame.
Yes, up to 30 semester hours (or 45 quarter hours), the equivalent to a year of full-time courses. After that point, students should be ready to enroll in credit-based courses. Even though remedial students are not earning credits, the remedial courses do count toward the financial aid limits mentioned above.
Most don't, but there are some exceptions. Students can typically find this information on the university's website or can contact the school directly for the most up-to-date admission information.
Probably not. The college admission process is separate from the academic calendar. Most brick-and-mortar schools use two start dates – one in the fall and another in the spring, with some schools also offering summer and/or winter start dates. Although some online colleges use the same schedule, many are more flexible and have multiple start dates. It's even possible to see as many as 12 start dates in a year, depending on the school. But even then, you'll likely still have to wait a few weeks.
In general, yes. Tuition at open enrollment schools tend to be lower than selective four-year colleges. That's because most open enrollment colleges are community colleges that strive to give lower-income students more access to a college education. But there's one caveat – although they typically have open enrollment policies, some for-profit schools are more expensive than comparable nonprofit colleges.
When asked about open enrollment schools, Dave Kobzina, Assistant Director for Transfer Recruitment at Portland State University, says, "I don't think you can say it's ‘good' or ‘bad' as a blanket statement. But I would lean towards saying that open enrollment at community colleges is generally a good thing. Not everyone does well academically in high school, and for a variety of reasons. Getting the opportunity to pursue a higher education is always good."
But when it comes to four-year schools, Kobzina has concerns about open enrollment, mostly because of the overall quality of the student body. "For a four-year school that's open enrollment, you could have students who passed their classes with D grades and a GPA just high enough to graduate. This could be a negative for higher-achieving students who attend that same college."
And Kobzina isn't alone. There's a broader conversation among educators about the potential downsides of open enrollment.
In their book, Community Colleges and the Access Effect, Professor Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and educator Mirra Leigh Anson present three arguments against open enrollment:
First, open enrollment colleges may lower high school students' expectations of how rigorous college work will be. And some students may strive for an open enrollment school so they can spend their high school careers doing the minimum requirement.
Second, they say that lowered expectations are part — but by no means all — of the reason why many students at open enrollment colleges are unprepared for college-level work. According to Scherer and Anson, many students enter college at an elementary school academic level, resulting in low retention and graduation rates, not to mention poor job prospects.
Lastly, unmotivated students can dig themselves into financial debt. Unprepared or unmotivated students can remain stagnant but continue to take out student loans. If the student isn't advancing, the debt still continues to grow. On top of that, people without a college degree typically take longer to pay off student loans. According to Scherer and Anson, some students would have been financially better off pursuing apprenticeships or job training programs.
Kobzina echoes some of these concerns. "I believe those who'd suffer the most are the students who get admitted simply because they have a sub-par GED or high school diploma. We want to prepare our future leaders to be critical thinkers and, in more general terms, well educated. Someone who comes to a four-year school and doesn't have the educational background isn't likely to persist. What happens to them when they have $20,000 in loans and flunk out after the first year? We aren't setting them up for success that way."
Kobzina has some important advice for students considering enrolling in an open admission school, particularly four-year universities:
Kobzina suggests looking into why the school is open enrollment and learning some key statistics, such as the retention rate for first-year students and career placement after graduation. Schools that score low on these indicators may not have the resources to help students succeed. "A college education isn't cheap, so knowing that you'll be successful after graduation is important," he says.
This is particularly true of for-profit colleges. "I've seen a lot of for-profit schools that state they are accredited. Yes, but not regionally. This means that if [students] want to transfer elsewhere, none of the credits will come with them," warns Kobzina.
Students whose high school GPA wasn't all that great may still be good candidates for college, but it can be difficult for a college to make that call if admission criteria are lax. Some schools, however, are access institutions which means there are some benchmarks in place when needed. "Portland State prides itself on being an access institution," says Kobzina. "We admit students with a 3.0 GPA or higher. If students have lower than a 3.0 GPA, then they'll likely need to go through our holistic review process. This consists of a personal essay and two academic letters of recommendation. Will the student be academically successful here? These are decisions we have to make as part of this process."
Even if a four-year college has an open enrollment policy, the student may not be ready for such rigorous coursework. "It's good to give students a chance at a college education, but there has to be a point when the school acknowledges that a student simply isn't ready. In those cases, beginning at a community college is the right choice." Since four-year colleges that use open enrollment are, by definition, not making that determination, students themselves need to be able to recognize when community college is the better option.
If open enrollment doesn't sound like what you thought it was, you may be confusing it with another type of admission policy. There are several types that may share some things in common with open enrollment but typically have more stringent requirements such as standardized test scores, personal essays and letters of recommendation:
Typically, colleges wait until after the deadline to look at all the applications and judge them against one another. Not so with rolling admission. Under this policy, colleges review applications as they come in, meaning students can apply any time before the application deadline and can expect to receive an answer within a month or two.
With early action, students can apply to a school before the regular deadline date to get an early yes/no response (for example, in December or January instead of May) but still have until May 1 to decide. This can be ideal for students who strongly prefer one or two schools. One major drawback, however, is that early action students who have also applied to colleges with regular admission policies typically can't compare financial aid packages that are sent later in the spring.
Early decision is early action with one major caveat – any student accepted through early decision is obligated to attend that college. Because of this, applicants can only apply to one early decision college.
Offered by a few select universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford, this policy is a hybrid of early action and early decision. Like early action, students will hear back early (usually in December) and those who are accepted are not obligated to enroll. On top of that, like early decision, students cannot apply to any other colleges via early admission. They can, however, apply to colleges through the non-binding regular process.
Schools with open door policies admit anyone who can pay tuition. Applicants don't have to have proof of high school graduation. Such schools are often diploma mills, but not always. Several reputable institutions, such as The Open University, the UK's largest online educator, use open door policies.