David Arendale, Ph.D.
The Historical Origins of Learning Assistance Centers
Learning assistance centers (LACs) have become one of the most widely adopted approaches for providing academic support and enrichment for all students enrolled at a postsecondary institution. LACs were a natural product of historical forces influencing the college environment such as changes in federal policies, increases in federal economic resources, rapidly increasing enrollment, increased diversity of the student body, and mutually supportive alliances with other campus entities. Understanding the external and internal forces that helped to create LACs can also provide insight into new venues for their transformation to meet future needs. Following is some preliminary research that I have been conducting on this topic.
A distinguishing characteristic of LACs is their comprehensive nature and mission within the institution. Rather than focusing on a subpopulation of underprepared students, which was typical of earlier historical phases of academic access, LACs extended their services to all students and faculty members. The center was seen as a natural extension of the classroom with enrichment activities for all students, not just those with a history of academic underperformance.
Factors Encouraging Creation of LACs
A confluence of factors that fostered the introduction of LACs during the 1970s encouraged their widespread adoption in the following decades. The following represents a related chain of events that basically occurred between the 1940s and 1970s. Due to the brevity of this article, the more complex interactions and reoccurring emergence of some factors cannot be provided.
The era was one of increased activism. New leaders were promoting redress for racial segregation that permeated society. Others felt that something dramatic must be done to help thank and compensate returning military veterans who had sacrificed much during World War II and the Korean War. College students became more active as they found their voice in protesting the Vietnam War and demanding more services be provided for their success.
New National Policies and Resources
Partially in response to advocacy by a variety of groups, the federal government enacted several significant financial aid programs for colleges. These included the GI Bill that provided financial aid for veterans, civil rights legislation that broadened access to postsecondary education, and the Higher Education Act that provided financial aid to both individuals as well as institutional through the U.S. Department of Education TRIO grants, Perkins Student Financial Aid, and the U.S. Department of Education Title III Strengthening Institution grants.
Individual Institutional Policy Decisions
As additional support or direction was provided by the federal government to broaden access for students, individual institutions began to make corresponding changes as well. Open admission programs became predominant with two-year colleges nationwide as well as with some urban four-year institutions. Less structure was provided for students through "right to fail" policies that allowed more student choice and fewer required core curriculum courses.
Student Body Changes
Not surprisingly, the demographics of the college student body dramatically shifted. There was a rapid growth in the number of all students enrolled. New student groups emerged in greater percentages: diverse, academically underprepared, first-generation college, and economically disadvantaged.
Many of the students, especially those from the new groups, dropped out before completing their degrees. Part of the challenge was that the preexisting student support programs were overwhelmed and could not be scaled up to meet demand. Reading clinics and counseling programs had maximum numbers of students who could be seen. Remedial classes had a limited enrollment. TRIO programs could only served federally qualified students, and grant funds were not sufficient to even meet the needs of those who met grant requirements.
Dissatisfaction Leading to Desire to Change
With significant numbers of students dropping out of the institution and the inability of existing programs to meet their needs, an atmosphere was created for change. A powerful motivator from the institutional perspective was the loss of student tuition revenue which endangered institutional financial stability. Students demanded a service that was free, allowed choice of duration of use, and provided opportunities for both academic enrichment as well as academic remediation.
The Importance of Understanding LAC History
Understanding the historical forces that fostered the growth of LACs can be helpful for us today. What is the impact of changing student demographics, institutional policies, and graduation rates upon our work at the college? Are we preparing for future needs of the institution and our students? One of the maxims from the business world is that if we are standing still we are getting behind. Constant innovation is required.