New Cuny Chancellor Must Address Low Enrollment of Blacks and Latinos in Four-Year Colleges

David R. Jones

For a span of 14 years the City University of New York (CUNY) has had one chancellor. That will change this June when James B. Milliken, president of the Universityof Nebraska since 2004, takes the helm of the nation’s third largest public university.

CUNY wields tremendous institutional and political clout in New York. As such,the chancellor and the policies he advances not only impact nearly half a million students in 23 colleges and institutions, but tens of thousands of public school graduates who hope to further their education there. What remains unclear is whether the new chancellor intends to build on the contested legacy of his predecessor, Matthew Goldstein, or set a new course for this crucial institution.

Mr. Goldstein is perhaps best remembered for raising admissions standards at CUNY’s top four-year colleges. While those changes boosted CUNY’s national rankings, they came at the expense of plummeting enrollment rates of black and Latino public school graduates.

In 2012, my organization documented the major declines in the number of black and Latino freshmen at CUNY senior colleges since the Recession. At the time, students and families seeking more affordable college options during the economic downturn were applying to CUNY in droves. CUNY responded to the increased demand by raising its SAT requirements 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.

Harvard University had a higher percentage of black students in its freshmen class than Baruch College—a comparison most everyone should find appalling given the fact that Baruch is part of a public university system with a mission of providing access and academic excellence to local students.

In the two years since our report was released, black freshman enrollment across CUNY senior colleges has continued to decline, from 23 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2012. The decline in blacks and Latinos at the top CUNY colleges also continues: Baruch went from 18 to 17 percent; Hunter went from 28 to 26 percent; City College went from 45 percent to now just 40 percent. And today, only 13 percent of
the freshmen at City College in Harlem are black.

Given this trend it’s reasonable to ask whether CUNY’s commitment to diversity applies to only its community colleges—where most black and Latino students end up enrolling—rather than to all of its college campuses. And while community college is supposed to serve as a steppingstone to enrollment in four-year schools, the track record at CUNY is abysmal: fewer than one in ten students who enters a CUNY
community college will graduate with a four-year degree.

By all accounts Mr. Milliken has been an effective college administrator credited with expanding the number of low-income students at the University of Nebraska while raising huge sums of money for the university.

He also ostensibly believes affirmative action can be an effective tool to equalize educational, employment and contracting opportunities having publicly opposed a 2008 Nebraska ballot initiative that prohibited such policies, which was ultimately passed.

In a recent New York Times article, Mr. Milliken said CUNY has a “history of doing what public universities at their best do extremely well, which is offer education opportunity and economic opportunity to great numbers of people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.”

For decades, CUNY has wrangled with the issue of how to balance access and excellence. Mr. Milliken is now in the unique position to set the course of how CUNY will strike that balance in the years to come. We are hopeful that the new chancellor’s tenure will be marked by a  commitment to providing opportunity for all New Yorkers at all of CUNY’s campuses.


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