New York’s City University system has a proud history of integrating the city’s poor and immigrants into the middle and upper classes. Led by City College in Harlem, the best of its campuses were once premier academic institutions, whose degrees allowed their graduates to rise far above their social and economic origins. But in the late 1960s, the City University of New York began a long decline. Today, only about a quarter of its students graduate within eight years, and those who do often lack basic skills.

What happened to CUNY is an extreme manifestation of a nationwide trend in education over the last quarter-century. The idea of the university underwent a radical transformation in the 1960s. As unrest tore through American cities, higher education came to be seen as a means for defusing the nation’s social and racial crises. It was no longer enough for a college merely to educate; universities were called on to enfranchise minority groups through admissions and curricular changes. Few universities were as profoundly affected by this shift in expectations as CUNY.

Though CUNY had launched the nation’s first affirmative action program for minority students in 1966, both the university and the city continued to be rocked by racial disturbances. So in 1970, CUNY undertook to change its demographics on a far larger scale, through what came to be known as “open admissions.” Buell Gallagher, president of City College, explained that if the university did not increase its intake of blacks and Puerto Ricans, the city would become “a balkanized collection of hostile groups held together only by a common sewer system.” CUNY dismantled its entrance requirements; unprepared students would be admitted and given whatever remedial training they needed to participate in traditional college classes. In addition to providing a college education, in other words, CUNY’s mission now included preparing students for college on an unprecedented scale.

CUNY’s experiment in large-scale remedial education may now be declared a failure. Proponents of open admissions at the time insisted that the remedial students would be brought up to the level of the college’s high standards. Instead, academic standards have dropped toward the level of the new students. Just how low is underscored by a comparison with the State University of New York, where 56 percent of students graduate within six years-more than double CUNY’s eight-year rate.

While open admissions affected CUNY’s colleges differentially, all have been hurt. City College, having achieved the greatest prominence, had the greatest distance to fall-and fall it did, shattering its reputation as the “Harvard of the poor” almost overnight. Queens College, on the other hand, has by all accounts been most successful in maintaining its academic caliber, leading, predictably, to charges of “elitism.”

There remain good students and good programs throughout the system, but it is harder and harder for those students to get the education they deserve, because CUNY’s remedial functions are swallowing up all others. Like a compulsive gambler, CUNY continues to direct a disproportionate share of its resources to students with the least chance of success, while academically prepared students are largely left to fend for themselves. (The exception is CUNY’s graduate programs, many of which remain of high caliber.

CUNY is not the only university system that has taken on a significant remedial function. As of 1989, three-fourths of all colleges and universities nationwide offered at least one remedial course, and 30 percent of all freshmen needed some remediation. Few colleges, however, embarked on their remedial mission with quite the cataclysmic force that CUNY did, and few have carried that mission so far.

Striking Down Standards

CUNY’s transformation began with a violent student strike in April 1969. The strike shut down City College for two weeks. The protesters charged CUNY with racism and elitism and demanded that it begin enrolling black and Puerto Rican students on a random basis until their representation on campus mirrored that of the city at large.

CUNY’s central administration quickly capitulated to the spirit, if not the letter, of the strikers’ demands. Admissions to CUNY’s senior colleges had until then been based on a complex formula involing a student’s high school average and class standing; the top colleges generally required a grade point average in the high eighties or low nineties (roughly a B-plus or better average). The seven community colleges were effectively open to all high school graduates, limiting enrollments only for programs in high demand.

The administration’s concessions greatly eroded this two-tiered system. Starting in the fall 1970 semester, the senior colleges would take any student with an eighty average or from the top half of his class, and any remaining barriers to the community colleges would be removed.

Since a New York City high school diploma requires only a 75 average, and since many of the city’s schools have a 60 percent dropout rate, graduating with an 80 average or from the top half of one’s class hardly guarantees college preparedness or distinguishes one from the vast majority of high school graduates. CUNY would eventually require a top-third class standing, but by then, the city’s schools had deteriorated even further, partly as a result of CUNY’s relaxed admissions standards. The administration also promised to expand to 19,000 students the university’s affirmative action program in the senior colleges, called SEEI; (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge), and to create separate ethnic studies departments. Moreover, students who consistently failed their courses would not be flunked out of school.

The new admissions policy had an immediate effect. Within months, City College alone created 105 sections of remedial English and hired 21 full-time faculty members to teach them. Whereas 70 percent of its English classes had been literature courses, now 70 percent were remedial. Nearly nine in ten City College students required remedial writing instruction. Professors found themselves facing students who had never read a book, some of whom had no experience with written language or standard English.

Open admissions cost $35.5 million in its first year alone; CUNY’s budget shot up by 53 percent. Systemwide, 1,200 faculty members were hired to teach remedial courses. Counseling and tutoring suddenly became top priorities. The Board of Higher Education (predecessor to CUNY’s Board of Trustees) created full departments of remedial education at three senior colleges; soon, every college would have them.

Yet the race to the bottom had only begun. When the new policies failed to bring in a satisfactory number of minorities, some senior colleges, motivated by the additional funding they received for admitting remedial students, petitioned for and won the right to enroll students from the bottom half of their high school class.

In May 1976, CUNY ran out of money and shut down for two weeks. It is impossible not to view this crisis as the indirect result of open admissions. As Paula Fichtner, chairman of the history department at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, says, “CUNY never had the resources to meet the needs of the students it had inflicted itself with.”

New York State eventually bailed the system out by agreeing to relieve the city of financial responsibility for CUNY’s senior colleges. In exchange, CUNY would start charging tuition for the first time in its history. Yet CUNY did not thereby regain financial stability. Despite repeated tuition increases, CUNY has continued to be plagued with severe budget problems.

The introduction of tuition led to the final exodus of academically prepared middle-class students, who left for the State University of New York system or for private colleges. At the same time, top universities across the country were aggressively wooing minority students. The most competent of those students had little reason left to choose CUNY.

The Remediation Industry

To the extent that defenders of open admissions acknowledge any negative effects of the policy, they blame inadequate funding. “The big problem with open admissions was not that it brought in people who had lower grade point averages, but that the university didn’t provide the remedial work they needed,” says Arnie Birenbaum, a professor in City College’s sociology department from 1967 to 1970 and member of Faculty for Action, a group set up to support the strikers’ demands. With more money, Birenbaum and others claim, CUNY could successfully prepare its students for college.

Yet it is hard to imagine a more imposing structure than CUNY’s remediation industry. At its center is the SEEK program, the opening wedge of open admissions. SEEK’s founder, Julius C. C. Edelstein, formerly an aide to Mayor Robert F. Wagner and in 1966 CUNY’s dean of urban affairs, pioneered the idea of placing underqualified students in colleges with high admissions requirements-a practice that quickly spread across the nation. SEEK actually requires extremely low grades or low class standing, in addition to economic disadvantage-poor but academically successful students need not apply. The program provided its beneficiaries with intensive counseling, remedial classes, and a living stipend, a benefit unknown in 1966.

The initial graduation rates of SEEK students-12 to 15 percent-ought to have set off warning bells. But instead of reconsidering SEEK’s premises, CUNY steadily expanded it. Today, its resources dwarf those of traditional academic departments. At City College, the Department of Special Programs, which administers SEEK, has 29 full-time professors and lecturers, yet it offers only two classes: a course in study techniques, note-taking, and vocabulary; and a social science survey. By comparison, City’s history department has 25 professors; political science, 10; and philosophy, 8. City’s Special Programs Department has a budget of some $1 million for counseling and tutoring alone.

The disproportion between SEEK programs and traditional departments is repeated throughout CUNY. The Department of Educational Services at Brooklyn College has 39 faculty members; the history department, 25. As of fall 1993, Hunter’s Academic Skills program had a director, 23 full-time faculty members, 3 adjuncts (part-time teachers), 19 counselors, and two people on leave. The average class size for Hunter’s SEEK students is 14; regularly admitted students sit 45 to 50 a class.

Despite its own large resources and the growth of remedial technologies generally, SEEK has not managed to improve the graduation rate of its students, which remains at just under 13 percent after eight years. For African-American and Puerto Rican males in the SEEK program, the rates are 6.2 and 10.1 percent, respectively.

SEEK is just one part of CUNY’s remediation problem, however. Nearly three out of four senior college freshmen and nine out of ten community college freshmen were enrolled in remedial classes in 1992. The bulk of remedial responsibility falls on English and math departments. In most math departments, high-school-level courses greatly outnumber college courses. Departments like physics, which don’t offer remedial courses per se, have added an enormous amount of tutoring capacity. Many colleges have created separate departments of English as a Second Language to accommodate the growing number of students who come to CUNY with little or no experience in English.

In addition to remedial classes, open admissions has spawned a host of tutorial centers, staffed largely by part-time professors, and counseling and “guidance” centers, staffed by social workers. City College is replicating the SEEK model-in which disproportionate resources are directed at the students least likely to succeed-for remedial students outside the SEEK program. City’s Student Support Service Program is a virtual SEEK clone catering to non-SEEK students enrolled in two or more remedial courses. It offers workshops in note-taking, test-taking, and study skills, as well as financial assistance, personal counseling, and “cultural enrichment” activities. It employs two administrators, four full-time counselors, one full-time “basic skills specialist,” and seven tutors.

An additional layer of bureaucracy oversees these broader remedial functions. City’s General Education and Guidance Division watches over remediation, tutoring, and counseling, in addition to general academic advising. It has its own dean and faculty.

Cycle of Failure

CUNY’s remedial programs have little hope of success, because the university admits students who are so woefully ill-prepared. Rudi Gedamke, a professor in City College’s Special Programs Department, says some of his students not only cannot read or write but also have difficulty with cause-and-effect reasoning. Their thinking, he says, is “primitive and associational”; they can’t produce a sequential argument.

Gedamke is deeply committed to the idea that everyone deserves the chance to attend a liberal arts college. But he is rapidly losing hope. On exams, he sometimes asks students to put the paragraphs of a rearranged essay back in the proper order. Many students cannot even recognize that the essay is out of order. For some, he says, “there is no pedagogy available to solve their problems.” It is “dishonest,” he argues, to claim we can help them.

On the other hand, all professors have stories of remedial students whose lives were transformed by the opportunity to attend CUNY. On a visit to City College, I spoke with a 24-year-old freshman named Miguel Williams who had come back to school after realizing that “you can’t just be getting by anymore.” attended Williams’s remedial writing class, taught by a tragically incompetent literature professor who spent the class time in pointless and confusing digressions. Whereas most students simply sank into a sullen shell, Williams was bursting with frustration. “Teachers shouldn’t dull your spirit,” he said in the corridor after class. “I hope people wake up to the fact that they’re being robbed out of an education.”

Despite his bad luck with course placement, Williams stands a good chance of succeeding at City. Indeed, most professors say they can spot from day one the students in their classes who will succeed and those who won’t. This is a judgment that CUNY as an institution is unwilling to make, however-to the detriment of all involved. Instead of concentrating on students who can be helped, CUNY creates ever lower levels of remediation for those who can’t.

There are no F’s in remedial courses, just R’s for “Repeat.” In theory, students are not allowed to advance beyond their sixtieth credit without passing the Skills Assessment Tests, which determine placement in remedial courses. In practice, this requirement is often waived. For many students, remediation becomes an endless cycle of failure.

The CUNY administration keeps no statistics on the extent of recidivism in remedial courses or the subsequent fate of remedial students-information that would be vital for a precise evaluation of CUNY’s many remedial programs. At the College of Staten Island, which has a lower remedial burden than other CUNY campuses, approximately one-quarter of the students in remedial writing and reading fail their first time around.

These students end up at the bottom rung of remediation, where all evidence points to the utter futility of further pedagogical effort. To justify their labors, professors in such classes embrace a therapeutic mission. “The focus [in lower remedial classes] is as much, if not more, on the reader as the reading,” says Rose Ortez, developmental reading and writing coordinator at Staten Island. The objective, she explains, is to “become a more self-aware reader.”

The remedial system at CUNY is not only open-ended; it is also extremely porous. The original notion that students without college skills would remain in an antechamber to the college until they were adequately prepared quickly collapsed under a variety of pressures. Keeping remedial students out of regular courses is decried as “stigmatizing”; professors in undersubscribed upper level courses complain that the remedial teachers hold students back. Now, students who lack reading and writing skills are usually allowed to take regular courses at the same time as remedial ones.

As a result, the distinctions between remedial and regular classes have blurred. Rudi Gedamke routinely finds that students to whom he has given C’s and D’s in his college skills classes make A’s in their regular courses. The following short essay-reprinted here verbatim-received an A in City’s English 110, a nonremedial course. (It answers the question: “What advice would you give Charles about memorizing data and passing tests?”)

I would tell Charles to read and then don’t just stop and go do some thing else but to rectie and don’t lay in you bed and say you are studying but to move up and down and rectie.

I would also tell him to do overlearning because the more you overlearn something you will be able to remembrance on a test. he can also use scheme that could help you to remembrance a lot more.

Student writing has become so bad that it defeats the impulse to improve it. Al Fiellin, a former dean of City’s General Education and Guidance Division, discovered that remedial writing students were losing through disuse whatever skills they had acquired in remediation. So he tried to introduce a very modest writing requirement into all core curriculum courses. He met with widespread faculty resistance. The typical response to his proposal was: “I have too many students who can’t write well enough for me to help.” Short-answer and multiple choice tests have become the preferred evaluation method, so that faculty members can avoid having to read student papers.

The costs of CUNY’s remedial enterprise are literally incalculable. According to Arthur Cohen, director of a clearinghouse for community colleges at the University of California, Los Angeles, no one anywhere knows what is spent on remediation: “You can always move the figures up or down.” CUNY’s central administration claims that the faculty cost of remediation is $17 million at the senior colleges, or 2 percent of their 1993-94 budget, and $20 million at the community colleges, or 6 percent of their 1993-94 budget. Yet SEEK alone spent almost $14.3 million during the same period-and SEEK serves just 10.6 percent of the senior college population, or 14 percent of those needing remediation.

Even if the administration’s figures for faculty costs of remediation are correct, they are just the tip of the remediation iceberg. Underneath them lie the enormous administrative costs of the remedial bureaucracy, the large expense of giving and grading placement tests that many students must take repeatedly, and the personnel and overhead costs of CUNY’s numerous counseling and tutorial centers. In 1993-94, the senior colleges spent nearly $5.4 million on “freshman year programs” alone-sundry counseling, tutoring, and nonteaching activities-to try to reduce the one-third dropout rate of first-year students.

While CUNY pours money into remediation, the rest of the university is being decimated by budget cuts. Students are unable to graduate because the courses they need are oversubscribed. The number of professors has been cut by 17 per cent in recent years. Half of all courses are taught by adjuncts, who have few ties to the institution and sometimes fewer qualifications. In the spring 1994 semester, an adjunct teaching introductory political science at City College had herself graduated from the college just the previous year. Library budgets have been sharply cut, forcing the curtailment of hours and acquisitions.

Human Costs

The costs of CUNY’s vast remedial enterprise go far beyond money. Howard Adelson, a professor of history at City College and one of the few faculty members who were willing to publicly oppose open admissions in 1969, says, “The great thing about City was not that the faculty were so wonderful, but that the students taught each other. That was destroyed almost immediately. “ Even Arnie Birenbaum, the former member of Faculty for Action, concedes that “as soon as you relax standards, you lose the core of dedicated students who set the standard and who make the school.” That was destroyed almost immediately. “ Even Arnie Birenbaum, the former member of Faculty for Action, concedes that “as soon as you relax standards, you lose the core of dedicated students who set the standard and who make the school.”

Nor is the remedial enterprise necessarily in the best interests of its intended beneficiaries. Though the policy of giving everyone an unlimited number of chances appears benign, in fact it wears students down by misleading them about their ultimate chance of success. According to several professors, there is an enormous amount of depression among persistent remedial students.

The failure of remediation has had a profound effect on the classroom. While some professors continue to teach to the best students in each class, others turn each class into an introductory course. The standard hierarchy of coursework has also been upset. “We offer courses of traditionally extreme difficulty without prerequisites because we have to fill them, so we teach differently,” says Abigail Rosenthal, a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College. “The whole situation is skewed by the fact that students are unprepared.” Rosenthal says most of her energy goes into “strategizing” how to teach advanced material to unprepared students.

Professors who believe in maintaining academic standards acknowledge that they are powerless to do so. “You can’t flunk the entire class,” laments Felicia Bonaparte, a professor of English at City College and the Graduate Center. Gedamke says he can’t give tests from only ten years ago because 70 percent of the class, instead of “just” 50 percent, would fail.

The decline of standards has led to a corresponding decline of institutional prestige. According to trustee Herman Badillo, the value of a CUNY degree to employers has plummeted since 1970.

The most visible effect of open admissions, however, lies in CUNY’s dropout and graduation rates. Eight years after entry, only 25 percent of CUNY’s undergraduates have completed their degree; all but a fraction of the rest have dropped out.

Incentives to Fail

Despite the evidence that it is not educating the students it already has, CUNY’s administration is seeking to increase enrollment by 2 percent. This unrelenting push to increase enrollment cannot be explained solely by the university’s commitment to “access,” today’s codeword for open admissions. CUNY’s admissions policies are now driven as much by financial as by ideological pressures- though the two reinforce each other. “Ideology provides conscience with a justification for the bottom line,” says George McKenna, former chairman of City College’s political science department. “It is convenient to believe that every single person can graduate from college.”

CUNY is financed by the state on the basis of the number of full-time students it enrolls. If a college has a lower enrollment in the fall, it will be docked in the spring. “The game becomes filling classes at any cost,” explains Barry Gross, a professor of philosophy at York College. “Most students drop out in five weeks, but by then, the state audit has been done.” Bruce Newling, a former professor of geography at City College, compares CUNY’s enrollment policies to a broker churning stock: “If the students {funk out, the administration just brings more in.” (In 1992, the chairman of the economics department, under which geography courses are taught, prohibited Newling from teaching introductory geography when he refused to remove elementary math- necessary to calculate latitude and longitude- from the course.)

CUNY’s reliance on tuition for one-third of its budget creates an additional incentive to increase the number of students, ready for college or not. And the faculty union presses for increased enrollments so that its own membership will grow, according to Stuart Prall, executive officer of history at the Graduate Center and former history chairman at Queens College. Younger professors, he says, “would rather teach dumb students than none at all.”

The administration touts its College Preparatory Initiative (CPI) as proof that it is serious about improving the caliber of students it accepts. The initiative, promulgated by Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds, sets a seven-year timetable for increasing the number of academic courses CUNY would require an applicant to take in high school, with the intention of ensuring that students start college ready to do college work. Currently, a student’s high school average may be based on nonacademic courses like “consumer math,” which teaches such skills as balancing a checkbook. Only 19 percent of New York City’s high school graduates receive the traditional regent’s diploma, signifying that the student has passed an array of college preparatory courses.

But the College Preparatory Initiative has a fatal flaw: it is not mandatory. If a student hasn’t taken the “required” college preparatory courses before applying, CUNY will accept him anyway and ask him to make up the courses in college, usually for college credit. Other provisions water the initiative down further. Students with a General Equivalency Diploma (a less rigorous alternative to a high school diploma), older students, foreign students, and disabled students are all exempted. And if CUNY determines that the initiative is having a “significant negative impact” on the number of applicants, it will extend the timetable for implementing it beyond seven years.

The New Pedagogy

While the administration makes hollow gestures in the direction of improving academic standards, far more powerful forces are at work within the university that would deliver those standards’ death blow. CUNY is at the cutting edge of a nationwide movement to do away with the very distinction between academic proficiency and deficiency and replace it with the concept of competence in one’s own culture. A new generation of writing teachers, forcefully represented in CUNY’s English and SEEK departments is arguing that “deficiency” and “remediation” are mere “social constructs” designed to marginalize unwanted groups of people. All students have strong linguistic power, they claim, which can be destroyed (along with self-esteem) by a teacher’s excessive concern about grammatical errors and spelling. Teachers are admonished to evaluate student writing “holistically,” instead of “over-correcting” the prose.

Geraldine de Luca, director of freshman English at Brooklyn College, encapsulates the spirit of the movement. She criticizes society’s “collective assumption that there are ’basic skills’ which students must master before they do anything else.” She adds: “Even the concept of ’error’ is beginning to feel repugnant to me.”

The new pedagogy promotes a “nonhierarchical,” “collaborative,” and “nonjudgmental” classroom. It also demands an almost constant reshuffling of chairs. Students are forever rearranging themselves into small groups to read and comment on each other’s writing, while the instructor benignly surveys the scene. While the occasional small student group in the composition classes I visited at City College did indeed spend the allotted time discussing its members’ writing, most of the groups quickly turned their attention to more compelling matters, such as the newest sneakers or last weekend’s parties. One group spent its time exchanging photographs. And no wonder The writing they are supposed to analyze-each other’s-is usually disjointed, illogical, and inarticulate. To ask students to come up with “two positive things to say” about each excerpt often is to ask the impossible. It is also wholly counterproductive. Making students’ abysmal prose the main object of study violates the basic truth that one learns to write by reading, good writing.

The most significant attack on the distinction between remedial and regular education comes from the movement advocating full college credit for all remedial courses. (Currently, remedial courses earn either no, partial, or full credit, depending on their difficulty. ) A recent study by the Latino Urban Policy Initiative, a nonteaching research institute at CUNY’s Lehman College, found that eight years after college entry, 78 percent of African-American and 79 percent of Puerto Rican students have dropped out without a degree. The initiative’s director, Joseph Pereira, argues that by not offering full college credit for remediation, CUNY ensures that minority students will fail to make significant progress toward their college degree, eventually giving up. “If someone can take Spanish or French for credit,” Pereira asks, “why shouldn’t they earn credit for remedial English?”

At City College, another effort to erase the distinction between regular and remedial courses is under way. Its composition department has created a new freshman course that mixes students who failed CUNY’s writing placement exam with those who passed-rendering the exam completely superfluous. Acting Provost Mike Aarons says the idea behind the program, which is being replicated in other areas of the college, is that “the more successful students help the less successful.” But aren’t the best students in college for their own education, rather than for somebody else’s?

Such “reforms” as “holistic” language teaching and full-credit remedial courses ultimately do minority students a great disservice. While their professors may be willing to evaluate their writing on the basis of “creativity” and “sense of humor” rather than according to “mere” rules, employers are unlikely to be so empathetic. Many professors tell of former students who failed job interviews because their resumes contained so many spelling errors. Mary Soliday, a professor in City’s composition program, is unconcerned by this problem, for soon, she says, no one will be able to spell or use grammar properly. “I used to worry about the ’real world’ more than I do now,” she says, “because now I see errors everywhere.”

Beyond Remediation

It is long since past time that CUNY abandon its experiment in large-scale remediation. The promise that the senior colleges could bring large numbers of deficient students up to par while preserving standards for everyone else has proven hollow.

CUNY should return to the traditional division of functions between community and senior colleges, reserving the latter for academically qualified students who seek a rigorous liberal arts education, and using the former both as a testing ground for less prepared students and as a place to impart technical skills. Stanley Koplik, chancellor of higher education in Massachusetts, argues that “to recruit to state universities students appropriate for community college is not a wise use of resources,” because community colleges respond better to students with remedial needs. In Florida, remedial courses are no longer taught at four-year colleges. Critics of open admissions also question the wisdom of paying college salaries to teachers who are essentially teaching high school courses.

Nationwide, 45 percent of college students are in community colleges, 40 percent in state universities. The University of California system takes only the top one-eighth of the state’s high school students and graduates approximately 70 percent of its freshmen after eight years. At CUNY, by contrast, nearly two-thirds of undergraduates are in the senior colleges, and the dropout rate is astronomical. CUNY could cut its size by half, argues Peter Gutmann, professor of economics and finance at Baruch College, and affect the actual number of students graduating by 10 percent or less. And there is reason to hope CUNY could improve its academic standing: several professors spoke of an improvement in the caliber of the best students over the last five years.

Any effort to shrink the university and raise standards will provoke all the arguments that destroyed those standards originally. But the experience of the last 25 years discredits most of them. John Mollenkopf, professor of political science at the Graduate Center, maintains that as a public university, “it is not at all clear that CUNY should be in the game of selecting students.” It is even less clear, however, that taxpayers would knowingly support a university that devotes considerable resources to teaching high school courses repeatedly to the same students and graduates only one-third of its entrants over eight years.

The democratic argument for open admissions is often buttressed by a sentimental argument. Julius C. C. Edelstein rejects any attempt to balance the benefits and costs of open admissions: “Who,” he asks, “can place a dollar value on the late bloomers who do graduate?” The answer seems obvious: the taxpayers who must also pay the mounting bills for the far greater number of students who don’t graduate. And those few late bloomers whom Edelstein understandably prizes are ill-served by a university whose standards are so low that its degrees have lost their prestige.

Edelstein and other defenders of open admissions argue that even students who drop out of CUNY receive an invaluable benefit from having attended the school, however briefly. In an age as obsessed with “self-esteem” as ours, this argument is anomalous. Surely dropping out of college leaves a scar of failure; a student would benefit more if he graduated from a community college or vocational school.

The argument for open admissions that seemed the most compelling at the end of the 1960s-racial justice-is today the least persuasive. CUNY is no longer majority-white. In 1992, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians constituted 63.1 percent and whites 36.9 percent of the total enrollment. Because of demographic change, argues Paula Fichtner of Brooklyn College, CUNY could go back to being an elite institution and still maintain its ethnic diversity. The SEEK program should be disbanded entirely. In the face of the radical shift in CUNY’s demographics, there is not a single reason for continuing to recruit into the senior colleges seriously underprepared minority students who require the most remediation.

The racial justice argument for open admissions fades imperceptibly into racial extortion, otherwise known as “keeping the peace.” Richard Wade, a historian at the Graduate Center who has no experience teaching remedial students, calls open admissions the “linchpin of the city.” “If we didn’t have a university that will take care of people, what will they do?” he asks. “I wouldn’t want to be here if there was no CUNY-we’d have to build a lot more jails.” Surely keeping potential criminals off the streets is one of the saddest justifications for higher education imaginable.

To answer Wade’s question-”What will they do?”-one might return to an idea that was considered during the original debate over open admissions. As described by Steve Goldberg, chairman of City College’s sociology department: “One group at the time thought: ’What black kids want is to get out of the ghetto, so we should figure out what they are qualified for. If that turns out to be air-conditioning school, we should give them that opportunity.”’ But the left derided this idea as “tracking,” and it was buried ignominiously.

There is a great demand at CUNY for practical programs in fields like health care. But the university is continually forced to cut them back because of its budget problems. If it were to direct its resources more rationally, it could adequately fund the programs that help people climb up the economic ladder.

The ideal of a universal liberal arts education has become even more elusive of late. In addition to the damage CUNY inflicted on itself with open admissions, it is also rapidly dismantling its liberal arts tradition with its enthusiastic embrace of multiculturalism. At a recent CUNY-sponsored conference on diversity in urban schools, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard M. Freeland told the audience that “it is obviously no longer possible to think of America as a nation with a mainstream culture to which other cultures feed in.” The march toward racial and ethnic separatism that began with the creation of ethnic studies programs in the 1960s continues today as CUNY funds countless initiatives and institutes on diversity and multiculturalism. Better, then, an honest vocational approach to learning than political posturing in the guise of liberal arts.

Over the last thirty years, American education has devoted considerable energy to coming up with things other than education that it might be good at. Putting higher education into the service of racial peacekeeping was one of the most fateful of those experiments. At CUNY, it destroyed an academic tradition that was elite only in its results, and led to the creation of a vast remedial industry, without, sadly, even having averted the balkanization that Buell Gallagher warned against. CUNY should rededicate itself to providing a top-notch college education to poor and working-class students who are prepared to benefit from it.


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