CUNY Could Take a Lesson From the Lone Star State

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Earlier this month, judges from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s consideration of race as one of many factors in college admissions decisions.  The case had been sent back to the Fifth Circuit by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2013, which asked the lower court to determine whether the use of race fit within the higher court's narrow permission of its usage.

The Fifth Circuit not only affirmed that the Texas policy was limited enough, the decision also stressed the importance of using mechanisms to increase diversity at selective college campuses, particularly at public schools representing diverse communities.

Here in New York City, the City University of New York (CUNY) has a mission to combine access to higher education with academic excellence. Yet it is falling short of the former goal--as we have documented in a Community Service Society 2012 report entitled, “Unintended Impacts: Fewer Black and Latino Freshman at CUNY Senior Colleges After the Recession.” The report showed how the numbers and share of Latino and black freshmen at CUNY senior colleges have dropped precipitously since the Great Recession.

As increasing numbers of students and families seeking more affordable college options during the economic downturn applied to CUNY, the public university responded by raising the minimum SAT requirement for admission. This disproportionately impacted
blacks and Latino applicants, who represent 72 percent of public high school students in New York City and the same percentage of CUNY students overall, but just 29 percent of students at CUNY’s most selective campuses.

CUNY's senior colleges do not consider race, family background, neighborhood, or any other socioeconomic factors in their admission decisions. Its admissions policy is overwhelmingly weighted toward one measure: the SAT exam. For a variety of reasons, blacks and Latinos do less well on the SAT than their white and Asian counterparts, including fewer resources to spend on expensive SAT test prep.

Nor does CUNY employ any of the non-race based tools that universities such as Texas have employed, such as the plan allowing the top ten percent of students from every high school into selective public colleges. 

As a result, black and Latino students are bearing the brunt of an unfair admissions policy that exposes a major disconnect between the college prep rhetoric and policy of the New York City Department of Education and CUNY.

To obscure the real unfairness of its policy, CUNY continually cites high rates of diversity in its system of colleges.  But the truth is that black and Latino students have been rapidly moved into community colleges, which have the lowest rates of advancement and achievement.  And this is happening while the quality of black and Latino student applications has actually improved.  Further, it has never been more difficult for these students to transfer into a CUNY four-year colleges – today, just 1/3 of transfers into these schools come from CUNY community colleges.

As Texas, Harvard and other schools have shown, there are many ways to increase diversity and maintain high standards of academic excellence. In addition to SAT scores, factors such as grades, class rank, test scores, family background, socioeconomic status and extracurricular activities should also be taken into account.

But class rank should play a much larger role. We know that students enjoy different resources in high school across our unequal city. If a student performs very well in their high school, she deserves a chance to attend a top public college.

When the top-tier colleges of our public university system cease to be a real option for nearly three-quarters of the public high school graduates, something needs to be done. In short, it’s time for CUNY to develop policies that allow New York City high school students some of the opportunities enjoyed by their peers in Texas.

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