Reversal of fortune for 'adrift' urban campus

April 8, 2005

Five years ago, America's largest urban university was under attack.

External investigators at the City University of New York were shocked by the vast number of programmes for students who lacked basic skills.

Powerful critics - among them Rudolph Giuliani, who was then the city's mayor - said CUNY was doing little more than babysitting students with a weak grasp of reading and mathematics.

Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale University, described CUNY as "an institution adrift" after chairing the committee of external investigators.

In the face of protest, CUNY introduced minimum requirements for applicants and a new skills test.

Opponents of change pointed out that 46 per cent of blacks and 55 per cent of Hispanics - who enjoyed none of the educational advantages of whites - would be excluded under the new system.

But something unexpected happened. Enrolment has risen for five consecutive years in spite of tuition fee increases. The quality of students has also improved.

David Crook, CUNY's dean for institutional research and assessment, said:

"Standards were raised, more students applied, better prepared students applied. Those are the facts."

And while the proportion of total enrolment of black and Hispanic students has dropped slightly - from 23 per cent to 21 per cent and 26 per cent to 23 per respectively - actual numbers are up.

Mr Schmidt said: "I know of no comparable gains in such a short time in any public university."

How did CUNY pull it off? It still has programmes in remediation, but they are now carried out in high schools. The college-preparation initiative College Now covers 52,000 students at 213 New York City high schools, with a budget of $20 million (£10.6 million).

Matthew Goldstein, CUNY's chancellor, said: "Universities have ignored what happens in high school and there has always been the sense that when students come to university, they're prepared. Solving some of the problems is much harder than just assuming that is the case."

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