Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Then and Now

In one of the most radical higher ed policy moves of the twentieth century, the City University of New York (CUNY) threw open its doors to urban residents, did away with tuition, and let the masses enter. This was the early 1970s, and the move may have helped quell social uprisings (as suggested by David Karen and Kevin Dougherty).

Fast forward 30 years, and as empirical evidence of the positive effects of CUNY's transformation mounted (see the longitudinal analysis performed by David Lavin and Paul Attewell, among others), CUNY gradually rolled backwards. Over-enrollment meant crowded classrooms, demoralized faculty, lots of remediation, a decline in "prestige." At the same time it also meant greater opportunities to grow a NYC black middle class, and increases in the attainment of women and their children. The city responded negatively, ending remediation at 4-year colleges, shifting the majority of poorer students to 2-year schools, and generally imposing regressive policies.

Now, travel south to Washington DC, which has lacked a community college for decades, relying heavily on the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to provide access to college-goers who couldn't afford a private school and/or didn't want to leave home. UDC has been through a lot (and that's a massive understatement). Now, in 2009, at the peak of collective ambitions for a bachelor's degree, it is ending its open door policy and hiking tuition from $3800 to $7000. Not surprisingly, students are upset.

Now, the goal of this transformation is in some ways a laudable one. DC needs a community college, and the plan is to make UDC partly a more selective 4-year college (e.g., 2.5 GPA and 1200 SATs) and partly an open-door community college. But it's hard not be wary of this move. It's being championed by the same guy who tried to end open admissions at Queens College-- Allen Sessoms. It flies in the face of plenty of evidence that the differentiation of colleges like this, if not accompanied by some excellent policies that equip all students with great navigational abilities, will result in greater inequalities. It's pretty unlikely that UDC the community college will draw folks into higher education who weren't already enrolling when UDC was cheap and offering a BA.

It is clear that relegating remedial coursework to the purview of community colleges unnecessarily restricts the college opportunities of a group of students who are disproportionately disadvantaged to begin with. Requiring more students to begin at a two-year college is likely to reduce their chances for bachelor’s degree completion. At least one study from New York suggests that students denied access to four-year institutions because of a need for remediation (known as being “de-admitted”) often do not end up enrolling at community colleges and thus are not in college at all. Eliminating remedial education at four-year institutions may therefore in effect diminish opportunities for earning a bachelor’s degree. Not what DC needs.

The Washington Post reports that the citizens of Washington DC are agitated over the proposed "transformation." In a city already deeply divided by race, income, and education, this is hardly a step in the right direction.

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