Let’s Repair Those CUNY Admissions Policies

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

At the Community Service Society (CSS), our issues seem to go on forever.  But now the paid sick leave extension is law, universal pre-K is going to be a reality, and the city has dropped its court challenge to the living wage law and has revised the way stop-and-frisk is conducted.  So things do get done. 

Public officials should now be focusing on our broken system of higher public education.  With a new administration in City Hall and a new chancellor coming to CUNY, we have an opportunity to examine the recent drop in black and Latino students at CUNY’s most highly rated four year colleges.

Importance of CUNY

CUNY’s admission policies are extraordinarily important.  CUNY has been the pathway to higher education for generations of students who could never afford to pay for a private college education.  This is especially true for New York’s black and Latino young people.  CUNY has provided the education that has helped to ensure economic opportunities for tens of thousands of New Yorkers.  As such, it has been a cornerstone of the city’s economic strength. 

But for years, there has been a serious disconnect between the percentage of students of color at Baruch, Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens, and City College – the top tier of CUNY colleges, and students of color in our public high schools.  And the numbers have recently gotten worse. 

While 72 percent of students in public high schools are black and Latino, they comprise less than 30 percent of students at top-tier colleges.  Yet these colleges are supposed to be part of a public university system with a mission of providing access and academic excellence to local students.

CUNY’s mission statement reads in part: “The Board of Trustees continues to recognize the imperative need for affirmative action” in order to “maintain at each campus equal access and opportunity.”

Drop in Students of Color

While the recent recession has brought an increase in applications to CUNY colleges, its top colleges saw a drop in the numbers of black and Latino freshmen.  As more students applied to CUNY, its senior colleges raised their SAT requirements and began to enroll fewer students.  By 2010, only one in ten freshmen entering the system’s top-tiered four year colleges were black.  Baruch’s freshman class has about the same percentage of African Americans as Harvard. 

There is talk that raising SAT requirements is an effort to make CUNY into a more prestigious university.  The use of SAT scores to determine entrance to CUNY colleges is in contrast to the admissions policies of the top rated universities in the nation.  Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and others admit students based on a number of factors.

Many applicants are being shunted off to CUNY’s community colleges, the orphans of the system.  Underfunded and ignored, these colleges have a poor record – only 10 percent of students entering a community college graduates with a degree in four years.
The recession hit the city’s black and Latino communities harder than other segments of the population.  The unemployment rate for blacks and Latinos increased far more than for whites or Asians.  Not only are these communities bearing the brunt of fewer job opportunities, but they are also losing chances of enrolling in CUNY senior colleges.

Opportunity for New Chancellor

This June, James B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska since 2004, takes the helm as chancellor of the CUNY system.  He is already on record as believing that CUNY should be providing an education for those who otherwise would not have that opportunity.  Mayor de Blasio, who highlights the economic inequality in our city, should work with Mr. Milliken to devise an admissions procedure that is fair and efficient.

City Council members should also be insisting on changes in CUNY admissions policies.  The young people and the communities being affected by CUNY admissions policies are their constituencies. 

The diversity of our population is one of New York City’s great strengths.  CUNY is one of the gems of the city.  Its success is crucial to the livelihood of the city, which requires an educated workforce to fill the needs of our labor market.  CUNY should be reflecting our diversity, not moving toward a two or three tiered system with most students of color occupying a lower rung, where they either receive a subpar education or drop out before finishing their degree.    

Issues Covered

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