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An Institution of the People

An Institution of the People

When CUNY abolished open admissions in 1999, many thought minority enrollment would take a hit. But officials say they are doubling their efforts to ensure access.

By Ronald Roach

It may have produced one of the most contentious fights ever in
U.S. higher education. The battle over open admissions and remedial education at the City University of New York in the 1990s garnered
national attention and marked a shift towards greater selectivity in America’s public, four-year higher education institutions.

For 30 years, the open admissions policy at the nation’s third largest university system stood as a landmark achievement for access and equity. Even before the enactment of the policy, CUNY had already attained legendary status as a vehicle for upward economic mobility for generations of the city’s immigrant and low-income residents.

“CUNY is a system that prides itself with the importance of diversity. Our role is very closely identified with being an institution of the people,” says Jay Hershenson, the system’s vice chancellor for university relations.

After launching open admissions in 1970, CUNY transformed from a majority-White system to one that had become majority non-White by the late 1970s. The advent of open admissions also led to dramatic student enrollment growth, as the degree-seeking student population grew from less than 100,000 in the late 1960s to more than 220,000
by the mid-1970s. Nationally, only the State University of New York system and the California State University system claim more students.

Open admissions “was certainly seen as a big step toward increasing access,” says Dr. Anthony L. Antonio, a professor of education at Stanford University and the assistant director of the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research.

But the policy quickly became a target, as critics contended that CUNY accepted far too many underprepared students, requiring costly remediation. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was among those who argued that remedial education compromised CUNY’s quality. In 1999, CUNY trustees abolished open admissions and scuttled remedial education classes at the system’s 11 senior colleges. Today, CUNY’s community colleges provide the remedial education that enables underprepared high school graduates the opportunity to gain admission to a senior college.

Supporters of open admissions predicted that ending the practice would result in declining minority student numbers.

But CUNY has instead seen its minority and overall student population increase. This past fall, officials announced that the system had recorded its highest enrollment in 31 years. The 226,213 registered students that semester represented a 2.5 percent increase over the September 2005 enrollment of 220,727, which had been the highest since 1975.

 “I must say that as we examine what has happened since 1999, the predictions of CUNY plummeting in population couldn’t be further from the truth,” Hershenson says.
Looking for the Best and Brightest
Black student representation has fallen at three of the 11 senior colleges, despite the overall growth. Baruch College, City College and Hunter College have all seen declines in Black student enrollment as well as the proportion of Black students in their respective student bodies. At the Harlem-based City College, Blacks, making up 40 percent of students in 1999, were just 30 percent in the 2005-2006 academic year, according to CUNY. During the same period, Baruch College, which is highly regarded for its business programs, saw Blacks fall from 24 percent to 14 percent of their students. Blacks at Hunter College fell from 20 percent to 15 percent.   

But CUNY officials point out that the overall Black enrollment increased by 9.2 percent between 1999 and 2005. In the Fall 2005 semester, CUNY’s senior colleges enrolled 57,791 Black students, compared to the 52,937 who were enrolled in 1999.

“While there have been drops [in Black student numbers] at some campuses, there’s been consistent growth at some of the other schools,” Hershenson says. “You can expect to see fluctuations when you implement major changes, and the fluctuations result from many reasons.”

James Murphy, Baruch’s assistant vice president for enrollment management, says competing for New York City’s well-qualified Black students is a tough task, especially since most of those students are aggressively recruited by a wide range of institutions. In recent years, Baruch has increased outreach efforts at predominantly Black and Hispanic high schools, hoping to raise the colleges profile among those students.

“We want the best and the brightest,” Murphy says, noting that Baruch enrolls between 1,500 and 1,600 freshmen annually, chosen from an applicant pool of roughly 16,000 students.

According to Murphy, retention for all Baruch students has increased since 1999, but notably so for Black students. The six-year retention rate has grown from 29 percent among Black students who entered as freshmen in Fall 1995 to 51 percent among those students who enrolled in Fall 2000, the first year that higher admissions standards were put in place.

But criticism remains that the new admissions policy discriminates against Black students, and some of the loudest voices come from within the system itself.

“It’s a very shoddy admissions policy to use tests that don’t have any predictive validity of student performance. It’s a disgraceful situation in my opinion,” says Dr. William Crain, a professor of psychology who has been at CCNY since 1970. Last spring, he helped publicize the declining Black enrollment at Baruch, CCNY and Hunter.

Crain and others plan to appeal to the state’s higher education regents to investigate the consequences of basing CUNY admissions on standardized tests like the SAT. Several years ago, a group that included Crain, other CUNY faculty members and parents, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education to have CUNY investigated for its admissions policies.  

Dr. Joseph Wilson, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, says the Black student enrollment numbers may be technically accurate but they should reflect the ethnic background of those students. Black enrollment at his college has increased, but he believes most of the new students are of Caribbean descent. A faculty member at Brooklyn College since 1986, he estimates that the Black student population used to be about 50 percent native-born Blacks and 50 percent Caribbean-descended. Today, Wilson says the Black students are overwhelmingly of Caribbean-origin.

“I don’t think the CUNY system makes the distinction among its Black students when it collects statistics, but it would be useful to have that information,” he says.

Attracting National Attention
In the seven years since the open admissions policy was repealed, Hershenson says CUNY has dedicated itself to more than doubling the scope of its outreach programs.

In addition to boosting the visibility of CUNY schools among Black and Hispanic students, the programs are designed to help the public schools produce more college-ready minority students. There are 16 high schools in the city that are either located on CUNY campuses or are partnered with CUNY schools as affiliate high schools, Hershenson says. The system is also partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop 10 proposed early college high schools.

“We expect to have 30 high schools that are CUNY affiliates within the next several years,” he says. “This is a system that’s integrally linked to producing quality in the public schools.”

CUNY has attracted nationwide attention and some controversy for developing the Black Male Initiative program. Begun as a pilot project by Medgar Evers College, the program is designed to help Black male students navigate the college landscape. Critics have condemned the program, saying its racial and gender focus are in violation of federal equal opportunity laws. Although a complaint has been filed with the Department of Education, CUNY officials are expanding the program to the system’s other senior colleges.

In 2005, the New York City Council provided funds to enable the senior college campuses to develop “projects designed to improve the enrollment and/or graduation rates of students from underrepresented groups, particularly Black males.” Each institution has the flexibility to implement the program according to their specific needs. At Baruch, “it’s more outreach than retention,” says Murphy.

Despite the controversy and the federal complaint, Hershenson says the initiative has been incorporated into the system’s long-range plans. CUNY’s chancellor, Dr. Matthew Goldstein, is seeking support from the state government to increase funding for the initiative.

“The chancellor sees the Black Male Initiative as responding to a national crisis,” he says.

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