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CUNY Sheds Reputation as
"Tutor U"

The nation's largest urban university raises standards, and grapples with remediation

By Jon Marcus
New York

The gaping canyon where the World Trade Center once stood is now Ground Zero of a soaring renewal. Commuters bustle to their offices in buildings that have been painstakingly repaired. Construction workers rush to finish new glass towers rising from the rubble.

One of the last grim scars of the terrorist attacks will also soon be taken down and replaced: Fiterman Hall, a 1950s office building that had been renovated into classrooms and offices for the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and was a month away from opening when 7 World Trade Center collapsed on the building, damaging it beyond repair.

Still a hulking ruin, covered in plywood and chain-link, on a largely empty side street, Fiterman Hall is at last about to be rebuilt into classrooms. And not a moment too soon. Around the corner, the community college-part of the City University of New York system-is bursting with 18,600 students, a 24 percent jump in just five years.

The increase in enrollment is part of the renewal of CUNY itself, a turnaround that follows the introduction of stricter admissions requirements and a virtual end to remediation programs critics complained were fostering an atmosphere of mediocrity in the four-year colleges of the nation's largest urban university. It largely defies predictions that this dramatic change would doom the school's tradition of helping immigrants achieve a higher education. And it has come with breakneck speed unheard of in higher education, bringing quantifiable improvements and a palpable spike in enthusiasm in less time than it seems to take most universities to set up a planning committee.

 
Fiterman Hall, at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was destroyed in the World Trade Center attacks but soon will be rebuilt.
(Photo by Lisa Quiñones, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"The proof is in the pudding," said David Crook, CUNY's dean for institutional research and assessment: "Standards were raised, more students applied, better-prepared students applied. Those are the facts. There's a change in the attitude of the (high school) guidance counselors. They're encouraging students to come here."

All of this is the culmination of events that started with a full-out attack on what powerful critics-among them Governor George Pataki and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani-called the university's pervasive culture of remediation. "An institution adrift," is how former Yale President Benno Schmidt described CUNY after chairing a committee of external investigators. Some students had a catchy name for it, too: "Tutor U."

Five years ago, as a result, the university's highly politicized board of regents, by then including Schmidt, swept aside emotional protests from faculty and others and agreed to require, for the first time in three decades, that applicants for its bachelor's degree programs meet minimum scores on national standardized tests. Those who didn't would have to pass a new skills test. And if they couldn't do that, they would be excluded from the system's four-year universities altogether until they could demonstrate that they were ready to do college-level work in math and English. Sophomores and community college graduates would have to pass the CUNY Proficiency Exam before being promoted, or allowed to transfer, to a senior college for their junior year.

The many opponents of the change, including Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, predicted that 46 percent of blacks and 55 percent of Hispanics would be blocked from getting a bachelor's degree. The shift, they said, was a betrayal of the words of Townsend Harris, founder of what 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."

 
Ikhtiar Allen, an economics major at City College of New York, also is enrolled in the CUNY Honors College.
(Photo by Lisa Quiñones, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
As it has turned out, the children of the rich and poor still do take seats together. Only City College, now the flagship of the 17 two- and four-year schools that make up CUNY, registered a decline by a few dozen in the number of entering freshmen, almost entirely because of cuts in a particular remediation program for disadvantaged students who did not meet regular admissions criteria. Enrollment actually went up 27 percent at Baruch College in Manhattan, an increase so dramatic that the school had to scramble to find enough space.

Enrollment has continued to rise for five years in a row at CUNY, despite not only the addition of admissions tests, but significant tuition increases and a new technology fee. (CUNY once charged no tuition, but this year students at the senior colleges are paying about $4,250 in tuition and mandatory fees; community college students are paying about $3,000.) The number of students in the university system, previously in decline, has gone up 16 percent in five years and today is at its highest level since 1975.

The quality of those students also has improved. At the five top senior colleges-Baruch, Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens-the average score of newly arrived students has climbed 168 points on the SAT and ten points on the state high school Regents' Exam in English. Among all freshmen enrolled this year, average SAT scores are 1040, compared to a low of 953 in 1997. The national average is 1026.

At the City University of New York, enrollment has increased, and academic standards have risen, since Matthew Goldstein became chancellor in 1999.
(Photo by Lisa Quiñones, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 

The average high school grade point average of entering freshmen is also up, and the proportion of freshmen who return as sophomores has increased from 79 percent to 85 percent. And the number of students who come to CUNY from the best city high schools-Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science-has soared 20 percent in five years.

"Those were scare tactics," Jay Hershensohn, vice chancellor for university relations, said about the dire warnings that minority enrollment would drop off. "You can call them what you want, but they were scare tactics." Whatever you call them, the predictions didn't come true.

By 2002, a report by the state education commissioner said the tighter admissions standards at CUNY had not significantly reduced minority enrollment in bachelor's degree programs. In fact, while their proportions of total enrollment had dropped slightly-from 23 percent to 21 percent for blacks, and from 26 percent to 23 percent for Hispanics-the actual numbers of black and Hispanic students are up. "If anything, you can argue that opportunities for higher education have increased despite the more selective admissions process," Dean Crook said.

That was when the state regents, who had originally voted only narrowly to impose new standards, reaffirmed the change unanimously. Schmidt declared that the institution adrift was now "the pride of the city." He said, "I know of no comparable gains in such a short time in any public university system in the United States." Neither did the heads of five other universities, including Ohio University and the University of Missouri, who conducted a review and pronounced the turnaround "not equaled in any other urban university that we know of."

The liberal Center for an Urban Future, a think tank often critical of Mayor Giuliani, praised CUNY's "vast improvements" and said it was a model for the nation. "When we set about changing CUNY, the naysayers said our reforms would not work," Governor Pataki said. "They were wrong." Even CUNY's teacher-training programs, so many of whose students failed that the state threatened to shut them down, increased their passing rate from 62 percent to 93 percent on one certification exam, and from 71 percent to 95 percent on another.

Then came the piece de resistance: Last year, two students from CUNY were named Rhodes Scholars. "Yes, CUNY," was how the Daily News reported it. The university hadn't scored a Rhodes scholarship since 1991, never mind two in one year. To make the story even more compelling, both students were immigrants from the former Soviet Union: Eugene Shenderov from Brooklyn College, who had come to the United States after his immune system was damaged by the Chernobyl nuclear mishap, and Lev Sviridov from City College, whose journalist mother had to flee after exposing former KGB operatives. Sviridov was homeless for a time, sleeping under the George Washington Bridge and scrounging cans for money.

Months after the fact, university administrators still cannot contain their glee about their Rhodes jackpot. It was a gift from the gods of public relations, and before long Shenderov and Sviridov were being trotted out by CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein as the faces of the new CUNY-including at the launch last November of an eight-year, $1.2 billion fundraising campaign, the largest ever at an urban public university. If he had tried that five years earlier, Goldstein said with some degree of understatement, "I'd have had a challenge on my hands." Half a billion dollars has already been raised toward the goal. The state and city have promised another $1.5 billion.

CUNY needs the money. Its next challenge is to shore up its facilities. The panel of visiting presidents, as impressed as they were, said the school was clearly underfunded. Its Rhodes Scholars, Shenderov and Sviridov, complained that they were hindered in their research by the lack of up-to-date science equipment.

Of the money being raised, $400 million will go toward new or renovated science labs. "CUNY's academic standards have marched forward, but its funding has lagged far behind," conceded Goldstein. But he said the lesson is that changes in perception-the same ones that are attracting better applicants-also mean that CUNY can, in fact, raise large amounts of money and take other steps for which it might otherwise not have had the backing. "We're trying to acquaint people with why investments need to be made after a university has shown a willingness and a determination to do things better than it's done before," he said.

The chancellor has also been emboldened to take on the university's bureaucracy and faculty. He has proposed extending the trial time before considering a professor for tenure. In response to a report critical of a civil-service culture that "breeds centralization and paperwork" in CUNY's 700-employee central administration, he pared down the hierarchy from 13 deputies and vice chancellors to three: a chief academic officer, a chief operating officer, and a chief external affairs officer responsible for lobbying and public relations. And he abolished the system under which all CUNY presidents earned the same salary, differentiating them depending on their performance and the size and success of the institution each one leads. The presidents are now evaluated annually instead of once every five years.

All of this is occurring on the back of a reversal in remediation-a wonky word that became the catchphrase for detractors who claimed that standards were being lowered on a massive scale. This is where perception comes back into play: CUNY actually still has remediation. It just calls it something different and has pushed it somewhere else. "I really do believe that the tests, and all of these standards, was for public relations. And [university administrators] get very angry when I say that," said Susan O'Malley, president of the CUNY Faculty Senate. On the other hand, she said, "It worked. It worked in the sense that it got us better press."

Suspicions about whether standards had improved as much as advertised could only have been heightened when, after only 27 percent of students passed, CUNY reduced the required minimum score from 40 to 36 out of a possible 53 on the new remedial reading test given to entering freshmen. After the threshold was lowered, 60 percent passed. Even Giuliani, who supported it, said the test was too easy.

More than 90 percent of rising juniors pass the CUNY Proficiency Exam, which requires them to write long and short essays. Many get three tries, since only a quarter of the students pass on their first attempt. As of last summer, just 65 students out of the 83,260 who had taken the exam were removed from CUNY because they failed it three-and, in some cases (after filing an appeal), four-times. This despite free coaching workshops offered by the university.

The skills exams for entering freshmen and rising juniors have, "in some cases, raised standards," said O'Malley. "But you also have to look closely." Students can be exempted from taking those tests if they score at least 480 in verbal and 480 in math on the SAT or 75 on the New York State Regents Exam. "Some people feel that's not high enough," O'Malley said. Students who attended non-English-speaking foreign high schools or whose families are poor also can delay by one year passing the entrance test.

Even so, many of the students who do have to pass the test simply can not. Of 6,000 students initially accepted in 2000, the first year the entrance tests were given, 600 failed. For them, CUNY provided free brief intensive workshops, after which 350 of the 600 were re-tested and passed. On the other hand, some of the students who failed the entrance test were graduates of State University of New York, or SUNY, community colleges and selective bachelor's degree programs at places like the University of Maryland. CUNY boasted that this showed how high its standards were; critics say it just proved the university was turning away perfectly good students for political purposes.

What is impossible to know is how many students now do not bother to apply to CUNY, put off by the higher standards-or where the students go who fail the new entrance tests. "What would the diversity be if you weren't shutting people out?" asked Bill Crain, a professor of psychology at City College and chair of the Faculty Senate Student Affairs Committee, who is opposed to standardized testing. "Every report indicates that tests like these tests are not valid. They don't predict success at CUNY. Even the SAT doesn't predict success."

 
Susan O'Malley, president of the CUNY Faculty Senate, thinks the new emphasis on testing and higher standards is "for public relations."
(Photo by Lisa Quiñones, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Too much emphasis is placed on the testing, Crain said. "There's this mania over testing, more and more tests," he said. "Instead of a love of learning, it creates high-pressure anxiety over tests. I think our students are tested more than any other students in the country. It's souring learning."

Crain prefers that grades, course rosters, and letters of recommendation be used to judge applicants. "They should lean toward giving people opportunities," he said. "They should lighten up. Most colleges around the country provide remediation. If [students] have only one remedial need, let 'em in."

In fact, rather than getting rid of it, CUNY has effectively driven remediation down the educational ladder to its community colleges and even to public high schools. Now remediation starts in the ninth grade under a hugely expanded college-preparation course in the city's schools. "It's more tax-efficient if a student's remedial needs can be addressed while they're in high school. You don't have to compensate when they're in college," said Selma Botman, who was brought in as executive vice chancellor in October to oversee these efforts. Forty-four percent of CUNY's student body comes from New York City high schools. "We have an inextricable connection with the public schools," Botman said.

"Universities historically have really ignored what happens in high school or even before high school," Chancellor Goldstein said. "And there has always been the sense that when students come to a university, they're prepared. Well the fact is that solving some of the problems is much harder than just assuming that is the case."

The college-prep program, called College Now, was long constrained by turf wars between the university system and the public schools. But in the last five years it has grown from 9,100 high school students to 52,000 at 213 high schools, with a budget that has rocketed from $2.7 million a year to $20 million. Another program, CUNY Prep, offers free classes for high school credit for dropouts aged 16 to 18.

If, after that, a student still can't pass the entrance test for a CUNY senior college, he or she can take a one-semester transition course at a community college called Prelude to Success, then transfer to a four-year school by successfully taking the exam again. Or a student can stay in community college and then transfer to a senior college as a junior, assuming he or she can pass the CUNY Proficiency Exam.

CUNY also has other safety nets, including a new separate freshman orientation, seminars, and counseling for black men (a demographic conspicuous by its scarcity there, as at other schools), and a language immersion program for students who do not speak English. "There's no higher-education institution in America that has this level of complex support," boasted Botman, a Middle East studies scholar and herself the daughter of an immigrant.

It's all just remediation under a different name, O'Malley retorted. "I think that is what has happened," she said. "But people don't like to talk about that."

What is impossible to hide is that their new role in remediation has helped bring CUNY's six community colleges to the point at which they are "bursting at the seams," as O'Malley put it. Led by Borough of Manhattan Community College, they have seen an average enrollment increase of 15 percent. Bronx Community College, on the former New York University campus in the Bronx, is using old dorm rooms as classrooms.

This phenomenon is not unique to CUNY. Community colleges today enroll 45 percent of all American undergraduates, a ten percent increase in just the last decade. But a trustees committee found that as CUNY's senior colleges raise their entrance standards, even more students are opting to start at the community colleges.

 
Yosef Ibrahimi, a Queens College senior, has been accepted by four prestigious law schools.
(Photo by Lisa Quiñones, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
This has had another effect: Eighty-six percent of freshmen entering the community colleges of what CUNY boosters extol as "the integrated university" now need at least some remedial work, more than double the national average. Only 28 percent graduate with a degree within five years, less than half the rate at SUNY community colleges. Almost 80 percent of CUNY's community college students are minorities, 40 percent are older than 25, half are foreign born, and 60 percent grew up speaking a native language other than English.

The CUNY administration understandably is focused on the most selective of the senior colleges, and at these schools the SAT scores are rising, and remediation is no longer conducted. "That's the good news," said Dorothy Lang, a professor at the College of Staten Island and head of the CUNY Association of Scholars, a chapter of the National Association of Scholars. "The less-good news is that most students entering CUNY do not enter directly into these more selective of the CUNY four-year schools. Where the majority of students enter is at the two-year colleges and the less-selective four year colleges. And conditions at those other schools are not as positive. What was done is that those students who were in need of at least some remediation were told, 'Well, you're admitted to CUNY but you'll need to go to a two-year program somewhere.'"

Meanwhile, students at community colleges complain it has been hard to transfer to CUNY four-year colleges. Faculty at the four-year colleges, in turn, complain that community college graduates arrive unprepared in core subjects. (In fact, the transfers have less than a quarter of a point difference in their grade point averages compared to students who took the traditional route.) CUNY is now working to align course content and requirements. In January, Governor Pataki proposed a bonus of $250 to CUNY for every student who manages to actually earn a two-year associate's degree within two years.

The community colleges are not the only place where CUNY has a graduation problem. Only 43 percent of its bachelor's degree candidates graduate within six years. That's an improvement from 2002, when barely 39 percent succeeded in completing college. Only 35 percent of blacks graduate. Nationally, about 63 percent of full-time university students graduate within six years.

The worst graduation rates are at CUNY colleges like Medgar Evers, which are not considered in the system's top tier. The school's graduation rate puts it 109th out of New York State's 113 public and private universities and colleges, with fewer than 18 percent of its bachelor's degree candidates receiving one within six years. CUNY officials say all but about 20 students at Medgar Evers are enrolled in associate's degree, not bachelor's degree, programs, making it hard to draw conclusions from these figures.

Like other CUNY colleges, Medgar Evers has seen enrollment increases-the number of students is up 14 percent to about 5,000, one of the biggest jumps in CUNY-and officials are now turning their attention to improving its campus in Brooklyn with a new $155 million academic complex now under construction.

Crook, the institutional research dean, said CUNY as an urban system has special challenges. A third of its students are part-time. Almost three-quarters attend part-time at some point of their careers at CUNY. Thirty percent are parents. Still, the university set up a task force in February to examine the graduation problem.

 
CUNY Honors College student Diana Esposito plans to enter a master's degree program at the University of Michigan.
(Photo by Lisa Quiñones, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
CUNY officials would rather talk about the program likely to produce the next new faces for its glossy color brochures: the CUNY Honors College, which now enrolls more than 1,000 students, toward a goal of 1,300. Its first students graduate this spring and head off to top graduate schools and jobs at major corporations.

To be accepted to the Honors College, students need a combined 1350 on the SAT. In exchange, they get free tuition, laptops, theater tickets, and private academic instruction. More than 1,400 students applied for the first 200 seats-some against the wishes of their teachers, friends and parents.

"My decision to go a CUNY school was met with some confusion from my peers," said Yosef Ibrahimi, a graduate of the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. "At the time, City University had a rather poor reputation." But a CUNY reception held for high-achieving applicants "convinced me that this wasn't some kind of fly-by-night program, but that they were really committed to changing the reputation of the university. I thought it would be better to be a pioneer in this program than to just be another number someplace else."

Ibrahimi, who is graduating from Queens College this spring with a double major in philosophy and political science, has been accepted to law school at Cornell, George Washington University, Boston University and Fordham. He said he has no regrets. "Because the administration is so committed to the program, where students at other schools might only see their presidents and chancellors once or twice as distant figures in their careers, I've met with Chancellor Goldstein probably 50 times. He wrote a recommendation for me for graduate school."

Ikhtiar Allen, another Honors College student, said his father was against his going to CUNY. "He said, 'No one knows about it.' But I went for it. It was the image of CUNY at that moment he was worried about. Honors College, sure, but it's still CUNY. That was the stereotype about CUNY at that time." An economics major at City College, Allen said he, too, is happy to have taken the risk. He is graduating to a job in the prime-brokerage department at Bear-Stearns.

"People look at me funny" when they hear CUNY, said Diana Esposito, who attends Brooklyn College under CUNY's honors program. "I try to say I'm from the Honors College of CUNY," not just CUNY. Esposito is headed for a master's program in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan.

Those first Honors College students were concerned about one thing, said Laura Schor, dean of the program: "Would people recognize their degree. And they have found that they do. Despite the gloom and doom that was surrounding us, despite the very real problem with underprepared students, CUNY has always had a very strong faculty. So when the leadership said let's make our expectations higher, the faculty was there. Some were skeptical, some were doubting, some were not sure. But after teaching the students once or twice, the faculty became thrilled that you can have great classes again. You can expect students to write cogent papers. So it turned around quickly."

It has helped turn CUNY around, too. The Honors College "has had an enormous impact, there's no question," Schor said. "These students would not have applied to CUNY if there had not been an Honors College." Other students pay attention, too. "Students in high school hear about the CUNY Honors College," said Executive Vice Chancellor Botman. "They know of (top) students who have chosen CUNY over other colleges. The entire campus is elevated as a result." And, as with the fundraising campaign, "If we had done the Honors College seven or ten years ago, I think people would have laughed at us," said Goldstein.


Jon Marcus is executive editor of Boston Magazine, and also covers U.S. higher education for the Times of London.

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