Cuts lead to focus on elite rankings

July 8, 2005

America's urban public research universities, set up to educate adults who were often from districts with overcrowded and underfunded schools, are shifting their focus from their original mission to boost their rankings in league tables.

While the 1960s and 1970s saw an expansion of programmes to help such students graduate with a quality education, by the 1990s and into the 21st century, they were starting to be cut back and even abandoned, along with the means to fund them.

The University of Minnesota is proposing to close its College of General Studies to shift resources to its honours programme in a bid to be ranked among the world's top three public universities.

Temple University in Philadelphia raised the average SAT score for successful applicants by 111 points, to 1,099. Temple's percentage of African-American students has shrunk, and graduates from Philadelphia public schools have declined from 29 per cent of the first-year class in 1996 to 10 per cent in 2005.

President David Adamany said: "(Temple's) sky-high dropout rates in the 1990s prove the folly of accepting marginal students who would be better served by community colleges."

In the past five years, Temple "has morphed from a commuter college known as 'Diversity University' into an institution far more academically selective - with a 34,000-member student body that is whiter, wealthier and more suburban than ever", according to Howard Gittis, chairman of the university's board of trustees. He added: "To make it a truly great institution... means looking for better students."

Detroit's Wayne State University has adopted a plan to become 20 per cent residential by 2015, and has built three new dormitories to house traditional-age students from out of town.

After it closed its adult-oriented College of Lifelong Learning in 2003, last month the board of governors considered a proposal by the provost to close its only other college explicitly serving adult urban students - the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs - and announced that it would open an honours college.

The university said that all the programmes would remain intact, but a clear shift in resources and priorities is occurring to the disadvantage of lower-income adult minority students.

While the goal is to increase overall student numbers by 20 per cent, there is a pattern of reduced access to higher education for the urban, non-traditional adult student, and an increase in opportunity for the traditional student.

The universities' new direction is intended to improve their prestige in the eyes of national ranking agencies and the mass media higher education monitors, such as the US News and World Report .

This shift towards elitism is partly a response to tighter budgets, partly a shift in ideology and, say critics, partly a rollback of affirmative action and civil-rights gains of the 1960s and 1970s.

Stuart Henry is chair of the department of interdisciplinary studies, College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs, Wayne State University.

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