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