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New York City
October 2002

City College: Past and Future
by Alfred S. Posamentier, Ph.D.

High tuition costs do not guarantee a superior college education. The City University of New York (CUNY) is still the biggest bargain around. In my 32 years on the faculty at CCNY, I have observed the City University go full circle with regard to admission, enrollment, and quality of instruction. Recent data show that enrollment at the University has risen 5 percent, the strongest increase in almost 25 years. Even more impressive is the surge at CUNY’s flagship college, The City College of New York (CCNY), where enrollment increased over 13 percent. The paradox is that this increased enrollment comes right after remediation had been abolished–just the opposite of what many skeptics expected to happen. What does this say about access and excellence?

Following social unrest of the 1960’s, the City University decided to open its doors to all high school graduates, taking as its model the practice of many central European countries. The one difference that was not figured into the equation was that in these European countries there was a selection process of students prior to high school. That is, still today, in some of these countries, hard decisions about a pupil’s academic future are made at approximately age 10. Youngsters at this age are channeled to vocational schools, non-academic high schools or to college preparatory secondary schools. This, by the American way of thinking, is wholly unfair, for it does not allow the late bloomers to access the university system without overcoming many Herculean hurdles. Today’s New York State high school graduates must meet higher standards than their predecessors and still compete for a seat at a university. It is not guaranteed and can be very costly.

At the College, one of the first institutions of public higher education in the country, “access and excellence” has been the principle that guided the open admissions policy begun in 1970. At its inception as the New York Free Academy, Townsend Harris, the then president of the Board of Education, proposed this institution as one that a good student, regardless of his means, could access. In the early years the excellence came from its students. My coauthor and good friend, the Nobel Laureate, Herbert Hauptman, class of 1937, often claims that the instructors were mediocre, but the students were first rate and made his City College years among the most wonderful of his life. Today’s City College is far more research-oriented than in earlier years with a far superior faculty. This provides the excellence in the form of genuine enrichment to our students. In addition, instructional methods and philosophy of the college faculty have changed. Faculty are reaching out and taking responsibility for working with students to give them greater opportunities to succeed. Their instructional methods are more inclusive.

When CUNY, in a major policy change in the fall of 1970, opened its doors to all high school graduates, the faculty was provided training in remediation. Unfortunately, this training did not draw on the expertise of the professional educators, the education faculty, as much as it should have. In some instances, we saw the “blind leading the blind” and not giving the best remediation to some students in need of it. Yet, the political agenda progressed until the financial crisis of 1975 forced an end to free tuition and resulted in reduced enrollment. All the while the reputation of the institution faltered as alumni felt that the quality and standards of the University were being compromised. Those of us at the front line can attest to the fact that quality was never compromised. We just gave many more students an opportunity to access higher education than we had in the past. Naturally the graduation rate declined, but that was to be expected. At least, in the spirit of the University, access was expanded while excellence increased.

So where are we today?  Clearly our higher education program in the United States is as good as (and probably better than) that of any country in the world today. We are now setting the world standards in education, emphasizing, as always, access as well as excellence. The extensive testing programs in the lower schools for which we have become famous, and which constantly push our schools to higher plateaus, are now being replicated in many countries that previously frowned at our constant testing of students. The concept of a Baccalaureate degree, previously rarely found in Europe, is now being initiated in such countries as Germany and Austria.

The increase in enrollment shows that high quality is always the most sought after. High tuition costs should not be considered the signpost of a quality education. Take the European universities, for example. Most are still essentially tuition–free and maintain high standards. Although no longer tuition free, CUNY’s tuition (currently $3,200 per year) is relatively inexpensive and so continues to provide the traditional access for which it was originally founded. Besides the research agenda, at the City College, to mention one, the faculty takes pride in its instructional program, minimizing large lecture sections and rewarding good teaching. After all, as the public’s institution of higher education, is this not our ultimate charge?#

Alfred Posamentier is Dean of the School of Education at the City College of New York.


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