10/03/2012 02:45 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Getting Left Behind

The Great Recession has claimed many victims, but one casualty is seldom mentioned: students under-prepared for college. Three developments cloud these students' college futures, particularly in California.

First came U.S. Senate hearings on for-profit higher education in 2010. The institutions were pummeled for low graduation rates, saddling students with hefty debt and not living up to their employment promises. In California this year, the failing grade has meant that students enrolled in 137 for-profit schools are ineligible to receive in-state grants, potentially affecting tens of thousands of students pursuing a postsecondary degree.

Then Congress made changes to the Pell grant program, this year reducing the number of years that students can tap Pell money from nine to six. The grant program also provided for students who had not graduated from high school or earned a GED. These "ability to benefit" individuals had been eligible to receive federal money to take college classes. No longer. Estimates are that about 120,000 students nationally will be affected by the change.

Most recently, the California Community College system has announced that it will give students with a clear educational plan -- either transfer to a four-year institution, an associate degree or certificate - priority in registering for classes. Students who want to take a remedial writing class or just test the college waters will be sent to the back of the line for classes. The implicit message: Don't come to community college if you're not prepared.

The shrinking of college opportunity is occurring for two reasons. First, continuing budget woes have forced governments and public colleges and universities to prioritize. The winners are students who are better prepared for college and thus more likely to graduate. Second, the Gates Foundation and others have been aggressively pushing a college-completion agenda. State and community colleges, urged to graduate more students with less money, effectively deny the weakest students access to a postsecondary education. As Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert, put it: "One of the easiest ways to increase graduation rates is to exclude high-risk students."

Who are these high-risk students? They disproportionately come from poor or low-income families. Their parents most likely did not attend college. African American and Latino students are overrepresented among their ranks. If they have a high school degree, they tend to be under-employed or employed in low-wage jobs.

In California, hundreds of thousands of these students will lose their option to improve their skills in a community college, much less attain a certificate or get a degree, unless they pay for the courses themselves. Most won't -- and probably can't -- foot the bill.

Casting aside students not ready for college threatens to alter the character of American society. Their declining postsecondary prospects, combined with the advantages already enjoyed by kids of college graduates seeking admission to elite universities, could stall America's prime engine of social mobility - the postsecondary certificate, credential or degree. Put another way, we may be effectively condemning these students to membership in a permanent under-class.

There are several possible solutions. High schools need to better prepare students. Colleges need to work with high schools to help students understand what it takes to get into college. States and their educational institutions need to offer clearer vocational-training options for students once they graduate from high school. Colleges need to streamline the morass of courses they teach. And better use of emergent technologies like online learning would help prepare students academically while providing them with the "college knowledge" they need to know to complete a certificate or degree program.

State budgets are more than accounting measures. They reflect the public values citizens consider important. I am certainly not saying that community colleges need to attend to every kind of student who needs attention. But if a particular sort of student in our society - the least prepared and the poorest amongst us - requires some sort of educational support, who will provide the service? A collective shrug of the shoulders won't do.