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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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Revamping Remedial Education
City University of New York grapples with a complex web of issues surrounding programs for underprepared students

By Jon Marcus

New York

  An instructor at John Jay College, one of the City University of New York's senior colleges, helps students prepare for CUNY's new admissions examinations.
  An instructor at John Jay College, one of the City University of New York's senior colleges, helps students prepare for CUNY's new admissions examinations.
THE SQUAT GRAY central administration building of the City University of New York is wrapped in a giant blue wooden scaffolding topped with barbed wire, awaiting renovation. It's an irresistible metaphor for a system undergoing a dramatic reconstruction of its own.

Beginning this semester, CUNY, the nation's largest urban university and the third-largest public university of any kind in the United States, began to exclude students from its bachelor's degree programs who could not demonstrate that they are ready to begin college-level work in math and English. And, for the first time in three decades, applicants to the system's four-year universities will have to meet minimum scores on national standardized tests.

The change, urged by the city's bellicose mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and approved by the university's highly politicized board of regents in November, is revolutionary for CUNY, which is distinguished by the free tuition once famously offered immigrants by its City College, and the open admission policy it adopted at a time of heightened racial tensions in the 1960s.

But it has wider implications as a portent of uncomfortable realities already facing many other public, and some private, universities in the United States: increasing political and financial pressures; taxpayer hostility toward remedial education; the deterioration of urban public schools that supply large numbers of underprepared students; the stratification of the poor into community colleges and the rich into four-year universities; and the impact of all of these things on maintaining racial diversity. It is also an instructive example of how remediation often quietly continues under another name until the pressure is off. And it has exposed the growing rift on campuses between the old guard, generally represented by left-leaning but aging faculty, and more entrepreneurial -- and political -- trustees and administrators.

The protracted debate at CUNY has gotten to the core of these divisions, putting adversaries at each others' throats. A group of outside consultants called it "an invasive political theater in which outrageous claims are the norm, policy comes to reflect anecdote rather than analysis, and almost everyone feels free to talk without restraint about lines drawn in the sand, about the fundamental negation of the institution's basic mission, about an institution being adrift" -- a reference to the title of a sweeping critical report about the system by former Yale University President Benno Schmidt, who was subsequently appointed vice chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees by Giuliani.

  Math professor Bernard Sohmer, chairman of the CUNY Faculty Senate, believes remedial instruction is an important part of the university's mission.
  Math professor Bernard Sohmer, chairman of the CUNY Faculty Senate, believes remedial instruction is an important part of the university's mission.
On the other hand, the consultants said, the school's faculty and staff had remained entrenched and jaded, hoping for this latest in a series of outside threats to blow over without addressing basic problems. "Too many share the notion that policies come and go, boards change, governors and mayors leave," the consultants said. "And all the while, the fundamental divisions within the university remain to fester."

As with everything in New York, of course, the controversy has been magnified by the city's proud combativeness, which makes public disagreements into a spectator sport. But the battle over remedial education also has been taking place before the backdrop of starry-eyed New York, the place of unbridled opportunity and vast potential, and of visionaries such as Townsend Harris, founder of the Free Academy in 1847; it was later renamed City College. "Open the doors to all -- let the children of the rich and poor take seats together and know no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect," Townsend urged.

Unlike other such utopian fantasies, Townsend's was generally realized. City College took successive waves of penniless, hard-working immigrants and turned them into CEOs and Nobel laureates -- or at least gave them a boost into the middle and upper classes -- by furnishing a first-class education, tuition-free. It was the centerpiece of the 17 two- and four-year schools that eventually would be assembled into CUNY.

At last count, there were 11 Nobel Prize winners among the alumni of what came to be called "the poor man's Harvard." Prominent graduates include Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Jonas Salk, Intel founder Andrew Grove, General Colin Powell, civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Ira Gershwin, novelist Oscar Hijuelos, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, writer Walter Moseley, and entertainers Ben Gazzara, Paul Simon, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jimmy Smits. A Standard & Poor's survey found that more top corporate executives had degrees from CUNY than from any other single university; Yale came in second.

Flagship City College was in Harlem, though, and as the neighborhood changed, the college did not. Tuition may have been free, but admission requirements were tough, and students who had attended high schools deep in the inner city often couldn't get in. So, as an experiment, the college began to accept applicants who were disadvantaged economically, and who would otherwise have been rejected. In addition to their normal course of studies, they were offered "stretch," or remedial, classes

"The assumption was that these defects were essentially correctable, a typically liberal idea, which I happen to agree with," said Bernard Sohmer, chairman of the CUNY faculty senate and a veteran City College math professor who has taught there since 1952. "Many, many faculty at City University, from that small beginning to what eventually became open admission for the entire university in 1970, signed on to the idea that a university's mission was partly social."

Related information  
CUNY by the Numbers  
But the changes came too slowly for some African American and Hispanic City College students, 200 of whom padlocked the gates and took over 17 buildings for two weeks in 1969 to force an increase in minority enrollment. The resulting open admissions process was widely misunderstood as having lowered the admission standards for the four-year universities, including City College; in fact, it assured a place for every graduate of the New York City schools, but channeled those who weren't prepared to one of CUNY's community colleges. Meanwhile, standards stayed in place at City College and the other four-year institutions, with exceptions for some minorities.

Still, the damage to the system's reputation had been done, and it began a long process of decline. "It became popular to say City College wasn't what it used to be," Sohmer said. "It was a myth that we had no way of overcoming."

That was not the only problem. After the open admission policy was implemented, enrollment overran the campuses. Then, in 1976, the city's fiscal crisis forced CUNY to begin charging tuition. (Today it costs $3,200 a year to attend a CUNY senior college, $2,500 at the community colleges.) The financial emergency also required that the state begin to help fund CUNY, giving the mayor and the governor control over ten of the 17 seats on the Board of Trustees in exchange.

More non-native English speaking immigrants moved in; today, half of CUNY's students were raised speaking something other than English. And New York's public schools -- CUNY's source for two-thirds of its students -- were literally falling apart. Standards clearly did fall, and more and more entering freshmen crowded into remedial courses to prepare for college-level work.

It was a pronounced, and precipitous, decline. By 1997, 87 percent of freshmen at community colleges, and 72 percent at universities -- more than double and triple the national average among comparable schools, respectively -- failed one or more of CUNY's remediation placement tests, which gauge whether students can read, write and understand math at high school levels; 55 percent flunked more than one. More and more full-time faculty found themselves teaching remedial classes.

CUNY education graduates have among the lowest passing rates on state teacher exams. Students were discovered to have received degrees from CUNY's Hostos Community College in the South Bronx without being able to read or write English, a revelation to which trustees responded by making the entrance test part of the graduation requirement at Hostos and other two-year programs. Even then, hundreds of students expecting to graduate with associate degrees were held back because they couldn't meet even high school standards.

CUNY had had no permanent chancellor for nearly two years. The top five jobs were filled by temporary appointees. The presidencies of eight of the 17 undergraduate campuses were open for all or part of that time. Long-range planning stopped. Budget allocations rose little beyond inflation. The university was vulnerable to attack, and attack it Giuliani did.

"Central to CUNY's historic mission is a commitment to provide broad access, but its students' high dropout rates and low graduation rate raise the question, ‘Access to what?'" reported Schmidt when Giuliani asked him to investigate the institution. The system was adrift, he said, and in a spiral of decline. Remedial education, Schmidt said, "has been a contributing factor to this failure…and a distraction from the main business of the university. CUNY was not conceived as a second-chance high school."

In their response, "An Institution Affirmed," a group of faculty, students and other CUNY supporters argued that the real problems included a 40 percent cut in state funding and a 90 percent decline in city funding between 1980 and 1997, and an increase in the proportion of classes taught by part-time instructors from 40 percent to 60 percent.

As CUNY's critics went to work, remediation quickly came into their gunsights. Leading the charge was Herman Badillo, a former congressman and expected future candidate for mayor, and a close ally of Giuliani -- and a CUNY grad -- who said the system had been squandering its resources on weak students who never graduated. "The fact is that remediation is nothing other than high school work," Badillo said. "That's what it is." He said higher admission standards also would encourage applicants to try harder in high school.

  "CUNY cannot be a second-chance high school," says Vice Chancellor Louise Mirrer, who is implementing the university's new admissions policies.
Sohmer likens detractors of remediation to a business manager at City College who, in the 1960s, had resisted adding services for students attending night school at an hour when most administrative offices were closed. "His argument was, ‘When I went through the evening session, nobody helped me,'" said Sohmer. "That's sort of Herman's approach, and the guys who believe that anybody can do anything they want if they really wanted to, and instantly you have no obligation to these people. They were the group that moved into being in charge, and their constituents went right along with it."

Soon the Quinnipiac Polling Institute was reporting that 72 percent of New Yorkers supported raising admissions standards at CUNY's senior colleges. In another survey by the Business Council of New York State, 85 percent of respondents said higher standards would produce better-prepared employees.

Even inside CUNY, there was animosity directed toward remediation. Lois Cronholm, former provost and interim president of Baruch College, said remedial courses had a devastating effect on an institution, and claimed to have eliminated them from her school in 1998. The president of Queens College was more crude, reportedly demeaning remedial students in a meeting with members of the city's bar association. "(Garbage) in, (garbage) out," President Allen Lee Sessoms was quoted as saying, according to an expurgated record of the comments. "If you take in (garbage) and turn out (garbage) that is slightly more literate, you're still left with (garbage)." Sessoms says his remarks were taken out of context, but his lawyer, who was present at the interview, admits he "used a somewhat ‘salty' term as a synonym for ‘academically unprepared.'"

...Nor were all the faculty enamored of remediation. The English department at City College, for example, originally wouldn't teach remedial writing, reasoning that they were literature specialists. (They eventually helped create a writing program.) "The easiest person to teach is a well-qualified doctoral student in your field," said Sohmer. "That's not even a hard job. It's interesting, it's valuable, it's exciting, but it's not hard."

...Giuliani made Badillo chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees, then persuaded the board to appoint the like-minded Matthew Goldstein, the former president of Baruch College, to be chancellor. Goldstein is the first CUNY graduate to hold that post. "I do not believe our senior colleges should be in the remediation business," Goldstein said. "I think the community colleges are most appropriate for showing up students' deficiencies and giving them the ability to move on to four-year institutions."

The battle peaked with a proposal by the besieged Board of Trustees to bar from CUNY's four-year colleges all entering students who failed any one of three skills tests in reading, writing and math. That would have shut out 38 percent of white graduates, 67 percent of African Americans, and about 70 percent of Hispanics and Asians, studies showed; they would have been funnelled into the community colleges, whose students are far less likely to ultimately receive four-year degrees than students who go straight to four-year schools.

Ena Farley, a trustee who voted against this plan, said it would have forced people to "beg and cringe and crawl" to get a higher education. Her colleague, Arnold Gardner, said he would have preferred a discussion about "how to bring people into higher education, rather than how to keep them out."
But Louise Mirrer, the vice chancellor who was brought in to implement the changes, said: "If all you focus on is bringing people in, you will find, as we have, that some students will not succeed. I don't think that's a very effective way of providing access. You have to have the confidence that you bring people in in a way that they have a chance to be successful."

In the end, trustees narrowly approved a slightly less restrictive measure, with Giuliani in the background threatening to cut off tens of millions of city dollars if they failed to do so (though a judge has since ruled that the mayor's ultimatum was a violation of state law). CUNY, they decided, would admit students to the four-year campuses based on their high school grades and standardized test scores, but then bar them from enrolling if placement tests show they still need remedial work.

Like most compromises, the new policy is complicated. Every applicant to CUNY's senior colleges will have to take a national standardized test such as the SAT or ACT to be considered for admission. Those who fail to meet a certain cutoff on those tests -- for instance, SAT math and verbal scores of 480 (the national average is 511 and 505, respectively) -- will be given the CUNY reading, writing and math exams. Students who fail any one of those will be required to take a one-semester transition course called Prelude to Success at a CUNY community college, but can simultaneously attend a senior college, where they would take a mix of for-credit and remedial courses taught by community college faculty.

  City University of New York Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, former president of Baruch College, is the first CUNY graduate to hold the system's top job.
  City University of New York Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, former president of Baruch College, is the first CUNY graduate to hold the system's top job.
After a semester, those who then can pass new special entry tests will be allowed to transfer to the four-year school officially. Under special exemptions to these new rules, about 2,000 students per year would be accepted, including about 1,700 whose poverty and educational backgrounds qualify them for the existing SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program, plus another 400 who are non-native English speakers.

The state Board of Regents approved the trustees' policy, but only through the year 2002, when they promised to review it; all four of the African American and Hispanic regents voted against the plan, a symbol of the racial divide between its supporters and opponents. And, in another compromise, the starting date at City, Lehman, York and Medgar Evers colleges, whose overwhelmingly minority populations would be most affected, was delayed until September of 2001. The changes took effect in January at Queens, Brooklyn, Baruch and Hunter colleges, and will be implemented at the College of Staten Island, the New York City Technical Institute and John Jay College next September.

The impact still is hard to gauge. So far, 248 students who had already been admitted to those four colleges for the spring semester got letters saying they would not, in fact, be allowed to attend. They were invited to enroll in free "immersion" classes in English, writing and math on CUNY campuses this semester, then take placement tests to determine whether they were ready for college-level work. They also were given the option of joining the Prelude to Success program at a CUNY community college.

Initially, there were reports that half of all students who applied to senior colleges would be excluded under the new rules. Now that the dust has settled, CUNY says that about 1,400 of the 14,600 freshmen who typically enter the four-year colleges each year are likely to be kept out.

The independent consultants are even more optimistic. They estimate that about 1,750 applicants to the four-year schools will be found to need remediation. Of those, 750 will require only a summer review course to be ready by the fall, 500 more will be eligible for Prelude to Success, and another 280 will be candidates for a year-round immersion program to bring them up to speed. That means about 230 students who once would have been accepted into a bachelor's degree program will be detoured to a community college. And, in spite of earlier predictions that the community colleges could not absorb an influx of such students, CUNY says there is room for as many as 5,000 in the community colleges, far more than are expected to attend.

Critics, on the other hand, predict that countless others will be discouraged from even trying to get into CUNY. They also allege that SAT scores are skewed by income level, meaning disadvantaged students will be unfairly singled out. And they are dubious of promises that the tougher standards will force improvement in the city's public schools, the weakest link in this chain. "Almost no one expects the city's public high schools to meet this challenge," the independent consultants said.

"It's a big challenge, but I think they feel very strongly that their students should be prepared for college or to work right out of high school," Mirrer said in her office, minutes after meeting with a group of public school superintendents. "We see ourselves in some respects as driving the school system, but in other respects we're driven by them. CUNY cannot be a second-chance high school."

In fact, according to Mirrer, CUNY's reputation as an academic institution is bound to improve as the public sees it cracking down. "As the image of the university improves, the range of students we attract will expand," Mirrer said. "For some students, we have not been the school of first choice. We're hoping we will become that." And, because they won't be bogged down in remedial courses, she added, students will graduate more quickly. "We do want them to graduate, and we want them to graduate quickly," she said. "That's why we're here. That's why they're here."

  As part of their preparation to take CUNY's new admissions examinations, students in a John Jay College classroom work on a
  As part of their preparation to take CUNY's new admissions examinations, students in a John Jay College classroom work on a "thesis statement" about poet Emily Dickinson.
(That CUNY is better than people seem to think is evident in a small exhibit in the lobby of the main administration building, which displays not only photographs of prominent alumni, but also books by faculty authors including Walt Whitman authority Gary Schmigdall; Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, whose book Gotham won last year's Pulitzer Prize for History; Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook; and Kenneth Jackson, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. "We've been sort of a jewel in a dusty showcase, and nobody cares," Sohmer sighed.)

As for the political realities, Mirrer said, "We're a public institution. We have to be responsive to our public. The legislature, the mayor, the voters, they all have a right to know how our money is being spent. This is not a matter of curricular control. This is a matter of financial accountability." Public officials and business leaders, among others, have a right to be concerned about workforce development and economic ramifications of university policies, she said.

And they are concerned, increasingly, all over the United States. The California State University system wants to reduce the need for remediation to not more than ten percent of regularly admitted freshmen by the fall of 2007. In Massachusetts, remedial instruction has been limited to five percent of freshmen at public four-year universities. Increasingly, underprepared students are being steered to community colleges. Mirrer has fielded inquiries about the CUNY plan from schools in Texas, California, Massachusetts and Georgia. "Everybody's interested in us," she said.

But there is also a counter-movement suggesting that remediation may be the wrong target. A Ford Foundation study, prepared by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, concluded that remedial courses are "a core function of higher education" and a good investment for society at a modest cost. National estimates have placed the cost of remedial work at about $1 billion a year out of a higher education budget of $115 billion. (By comparison, CUNY spent five percent of its annual budget on remediation.) Eighty-one percent of the nation's public four-year colleges offer remedial courses to enrolled students, and about 30 percent of all entering freshmen take at least one remedial class. Even the State University of New York, which has more white and middle-class students than CUNY, still offers remedial classes at its four-year colleges, inviting charges from CUNY boosters and city dwellers of an upstate double standard.

Nor is there evidence that students, in general, are proving less prepared for college than they used to be. Three federal government surveys since 1983 have found no evidence of a significant increase in the demand for remedial education, and U.S. universities have the world's second-highest graduation rate. In many states, the perceived rise in remedial education at the university and college level has been used to bash public primary and secondary education. The culprits: interests who favor such alternatives as charter schools and government vouchers for private school tuition, said David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, who has studied the trend.

"I see the remediation issue at the higher ed level as kind of the extension of some of this critical effort at K-12," Breneman said. "There are some very powerful forces out there that are doing everything they can to undermine support for public schools to gain support for everything from charter schools to profit-making schools, you name it. To some degree, those same forces now are trying to operate on higher education, and they're using remedial education as the wedge. You can certainly see that in the CUNY situation."

The open secret is that remediation continues under other names when the spotlight shifts, and this is also true at CUNY. Even after its tough-talking provost said she had eliminated remedial courses, Baruch College continued to provide about 85,000 hours annually of remediation; about 20 percent of its students were admitted even after failing at least one of the three entrance exams. Sohmer, whose daughter was a teaching assistant while a graduate student at Harvard, said, "Most kids there needed remedial writing. And if it's true at Harvard, I'm sure it's going to be true at CUNY. So we'll call it something else, but we'll still be doing some kind of remediation. We'll have to."
He's right. CUNY has asked for $9 million to double "academic support" offered to its students: writing labs, tutoring, workshops and other services. "I would be very surprised to find a student who couldn't benefit from academic support," said Vice Chancellor Mirrer.

CUNY also hopes to vastly expand several other such assistance programs. It has asked to more than quadruple, to $2.4 million, the annual allocation for College Now, which provides early morning, for-credit college preparation courses to high school students. Funding for a language immersion program would increase from $4 million a year to $5 million a year, and year-round and summer transition programs also would expand.

But the controversy isn't over yet. The outside consultants found that CUNY has no contingency plan to provide support services if more students than expected need them, and has made no arrangements for training faculty and staff to provide the new forms of remediation. A group of CUNY professors and others has filed a federal complaint that ending traditional remediation is racially discriminatory. And 16 high-profile lawyers, educators and business leaders convened by the Bar Association of the City of New York concluded that the changes "will have an unacceptably disproportionate effect on those very low-income minority and immigrant groups who are most dependent on CUNY to provide a leg up onto the economic ladder," and that CUNY could not afford to pay for the programs it has promised will replace remediation.

As for the students, many fear the worst. "When they first come to college, people need some extra help," said Nancy Luna, a freshman at CUNY's Hunter College, who is enrolled in a remedial course. "It's a lot different than high school. I needed help in math. I have to pass it. That's for me, but for the next students, they won't have that. They'll have to go to community college. That will discourage people from coming here at all." Tatiana Diaz said, "I needed help organizing my time, especially study time. I needed help getting organized. Without that, I don't know, my grades would have been pretty bad."

Sohmer, on whose office wall hangs a fading poster showing racing chariots labeled Harvard, Yale and City University, with the legend, "Who will be the next Number 1?" said the university has been a pawn in a bigger game. "Why suddenly what was once a virtuous act is suddenly considered a sin, I don't know," he said.

Another of the trustees who voted against the changes, James Murphy, sees it that way, too. "The remediation issue is really a charade. It's a meat cleaver that says, as of a date certain there will be no remediation at the four-year colleges," he said. "And the door is being slammed shut."

Jon Marcus is a senior editor at Boston Magazine, and covers U.S higher education for the Times of London.

Photos by Tom Sobolik, BlackStar for CrossTalk

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