What Do We Mean When We Speak of “College Access”?

In order to think effectively about much-needed systemic change related to college access in America, let’s first ensure that each of us as stakeholders means the same thing by the words and phrases we are using to describe the problem. To that end, the following information sets up a framework for examination. This edition is dedicated to all word nerds. Critical thinkers unite.

The relationship between models of reality and the reality itself has been well explored by semantic scholars, most notably a man named Alfred Korzybski who theorized that the “map” of language cannot fully denote the real “terrain” of complex constructs. Because I emphatically believe that his notion that “the word is not the thing” can help us unpack how we think and speak of college access, I invite you to begin with a cautionary eye. Let us put on our thinking caps and consider together the role of abstraction in language, for failing to do so can undermine real-world change.

Any meaning assigned to complex constructs tends to be highly context-dependent. To guard against confusing mental models of reality with the reality itself, this edition of my blog series examines linguistic limitations in capturing the “thing” of college access within the “territory” of the lived experiences of students.


Let’s begin with the etymology of the word college. Did you know this dates back to the late 14th century? The Latin word collegium was its antecedent. Collegium came from the prefix col- meaning “together with” and the root word legare, meaning “to depute,” “to send as an emissary,” or “to choose”. This word described an organized association of men (yes, men and only men) endowed with certain powers as a result of the proscribed pursuit of a specific tract of education. Implicit in this definition was the establishment of two camps: those within the collegium, and those outside of it. The us versus them nature of the haves and the have-nots has been argued to lie at the root of much of the civil unrest related to higher education access by numerous researchers.

One way to assess structural usage of a word or phrase is to note synonyms employed, purported to have the same meaning. Synonyms for the word college that appear in research include association, institute, lyceum, organization, academy, seminary, and most commonly university. While each of these may denote a roughly equivalent construct, the connotations are as vast as the array of the schools themselves. A frequent lack of semantic clarity in written and oral communication muddles the matter. In order to approach increasing college access or other such rhetoric to be explored, these linguistic constructs require deconstruction and inquiry.

In late Middle English, the word college came into contextual usage meaning “partnership,” “community,” “society,” or “guild”. Here is a four-part breakdown on those understandings as they have evolved over time, seen through a modern lens.

  •    College as partnership: The unwritten social contract between students and the institutions of higher education they attend can be framed today as partnerships, in that a synergistic relationship is created upon enrollment. The interdependence of college-needing-students and students-needing-college writ large, as well as more personal partnerships among mentors and professors with those enrollees speaks to this aspect of the meaning.
  •  College as community: Any gathering of individual people can be said to create a community, whether at a gala or in a prison. Since entire towns and cities build their economic systems of interdependence with campuses—such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and other college towns accounting for the vast majority of local revenue—the word community applies. With mascots and other commonalities like school colors breeding a sense of togetherness, college-as-community is a truism, nonetheless one insufficient to capture the depth, breadth, and scope of what people mean by the word.
  • College as society: The word society connotes companionship. It comes from the mid-16th century, as seen in the French société, derived from the Latin societas. Defining society as a group of people sharing social territory, this interpretation of the word college expands from the literal geography of community to an understanding that college incorporates cultural expectations. These expectancies comprise one of many hurdles for the uninitiated into upper levels of socioeconomic status. Economic and intellectual demands aside, this definition of college-as-society underscores the unwritten rules of engagement that stratify the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. today.
  • College as guild: The construct of a guild is derived from late Old English as seen in Middle Low German and Middle Dutch. The word gilde, of Germanic origin, is related to the word yield, meaning to pay tribute, as connected to the German word gelt, which means money. College-as-guild captures the economic drivers seen today in higher education, in that dues are always paid by guild members, and those who do not or cannot pay are not able to participate. A guild, like college itself, is a private club with limited membership. Only invitees, especially those practitioners of particular trades or activities, need apply.

A side note about the word university: The word university predates the word college in usage by over 100 years, tracing its origins back to circa 1250. Derived from the Latin word universus, university literally means “turned into one.” Related collegiate words like “varsity” spring from the same root, connoting someone or something connected to the institution. Over time, in both the U.K. and the U.S. institutions known as colleges and universities have come to be seen as interchangeable and equivalent; however, a single university can contain more than a dozen colleges, seminaries, and other sub-entities—including both undergraduate and graduate schools. Interestingly, in the U.S. we rarely speak of “university access”. College access has become our default language to describe the phenomenon of whether and how students aspire to attain the well-documented benefits of completing undergraduate degrees in higher education.


The etymology of the word access dates at the earliest to circa early 17th century, several hundred years after the constructs of university and then college appeared. Derived from the Latin accessus, the verb accedere denotes “to approach”. Notably, this does not mean “to get in” or address any aspect of persistence. Semantic interpretations related to the combined construct of college + access abound. Accessing college, when interpreted to include completion of a bachelor’s degree, has become a key indicator of having reached a threshold of accomplishment in U.S. society—a sign of moving from blue- or grey-collar to white- collar readiness in the job market.


Examine the construction of sentences pertaining to college access as they appear in media, educational, corporate, and nonprofit communications. For example, noticing the use of imperatives or questions often reveals aspects of both overt and covert/implied meaning. What story are they trying to tell? Is it true?

My research explores the grammatical utilization of the college access construct in stakeholder communications from U.S presidents to school districts and corporations profiting from the rhetoric, including banks. Considering, for example, a compare and contrast analysis of the use of access-as-noun versus access-as-verb in itself offers plenty of food for thought. By building upon these observations, textual structure can also be analyzed in terms of how it creates emphasis, evolving toward a narrative. The most common trope where such rhetoric lands to roost? The well-worn concept of the American dream.


Using discourse analysis, we can assess political and sociocultural points of emphases in how U.S. stakeholders frame narratives. As we increase our understanding of the history and linguistics surrounding college access in America today, we sharpen our pencils to get down to the much-needed work of leveling the playing field.

Connect with my community of college access allies by opting in at https://lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/4Jn1HTJ/collegeaccess.