Access to education has been one of the most durable issues in the political life of this century, and not just in the United States. Lunacharsky's expansion of the Russian secondary schools persuaded visitors that the Soviet future would work; Jean Zay's democratization of French schooling was the most admired (and the most feared) accomplishment of the Léon Blum government in the 1930's. In England in the 1960's, the left wing of the Labor party went along with Harold Wilson's imposition of charges on prescription drugs in return for the establishment of Open University, a television-based, degree-granting extension program. African political life has been torn apart by the debate between those who wish to expend scarce resources on universities for the benefit of a numerically small leadership and those who wish to use the money to build a broad system of secondary schools (in most regions of Africa the “elitists” have won).

Like so much else that has occurred across the oceans in the 20th century, these issues were first raised in America during the 19th. Indeed, by the time the Educational Policies Commission of the National Education Association published its “Cardinal Principles” in 1918, the idea if not the reality of universal secondary education had been completely established everywhere in the United States outside the South. Moreover, many of the publicly funded “land-grant colleges” were already required by their state's constitution (not just by law) to accept all applications from graduates of the state's high schools.

Few of the extensions of American education were egalitarian in original intent. The founding fathers sought not to eliminate either distinction or aristocracy, but to rest the recognition of distinction on merit rather than on birth. Proposing a system of twenty fee-supported secondary schools for Virginia, Thomas Jefferson urged that each take one scholarship boy from each elementary school in its area—and keep the best individual in the group through the entire program. “By this means,” he wrote, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually. . . .” Subsequent expansion, especially of higher education with the federal land-grant subsidy, was argued for in large part on grounds of utility: the presumed role of universities in promoting agricultural and mechanical arts. No surplus of applicants was foreseen; numbers, it was thought, would be held down by the loss of income necessarily suffered when a boy went to college rather than to work. Only unusual ambition, or perhaps unusual talent, would lead to attendance at college, and a kind of osmosis would draw through higher education those who would most benefit from it.

In fact, of course, social propellants intruded almost from the start. Because attendance at college involved the sacrifice of income, sending a boy to college became a significant example of what Veblen called “conspicuous consumption,” affirming the position of the family. And in turn, university alumni (not necessarily graduates), if only because they were drawn mostly from families of income and influence, came increasingly to dominate the leadership positions of society. This is not to deny the hunger for learning that could drive a Sam Johnson to Oxford or a Felix Frankfurter to New York's City College—but City College at the turn of the century was a no-elective, post-primary school that took students from eighth grade and sent them forth with a B.A. five hard years later.

After World War I, the notion that going to college was the way to get ahead in the world took hold in the United States, and then reality came to match belief. An increasingly professionalized society demanded academic preparation rather than apprenticeship from entrants to the professions (even in teaching, where post-secondary “training” was once considered more than enough); and an increasingly bureaucratized business world established educational requirements for entry to the managerial levels of enterprise (even in retailing, where everyone admitted that a talent for selling was a wholly independent trait). What S. M. Miller has called “credentialism” became a guiding principle in wide areas of economic activity, accepted by both employer and job applicant. In 1971, according to a study by the American Council on Education, 85 per cent of black freshmen and 73 per cent of “the non-blacks” said they were going to college “to get a better job.”

The other side of this coin, of course, was that those who did not pick up tangible evidence of higher education lost their chance to become part of the nation's professional and managerial cadre. What had started as an educational ladder, one of several routes upward for the mobile, became a set of educational barriers, hurdles that had to be cleared on the only way ahead. The demand for college places far exceeded the supply, and except in a few states access to university became subject to some form of competitive examination.

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I

In New York City, up until the late 1960's selection to the free, tax-supported City University (which enrolled about 140,000 students in 1969) was made according to high-school grades, supposedly uniform across all the city's schools. In 1920, a graduate with a 72 average would have gained entry to City College, recently promoted to post-secondary status; by the late 1960's, most of the four-year colleges in the city system were requiring an 82 average, which in effect meant the top 40 per cent of the city's high-school graduates (or the top sixth of the age group, academically, because three-fifths of the city's adolescents do not complete an academic program in an academic high school). For entrance to the city's two-year junior colleges (locally called “Community Colleges,” though none in fact drew from a geographically restricted area), requirements were generally much lower: a 70 average, which was earned by almost 90 per cent of all graduates from the high schools.

Thus, though neither a “general” high-school diploma nor a vocational diploma granted automatic entrance to any college, City University was deep in the social-mobility business long before the day of Open Admissions; at all times in its history, 90-odd per cent of its entering freshmen were from homes where neither parent had attended college. The fact is, however, that these entering freshmen were not themselves “representative” of the high-school population as a whole. The “general” program in the high schools was heavily black (and Puerto Rican), and in both high-school grades and in competitive exams, black students consistently ranked lower than white students. With increasing frequency since the 1940's, educators and social reformers have been drawing baleful correlations between the preponderance of whites in the universities and in the seats of the mighty. At one level, promoters of the black cause began to demand greater opportunities for blacks to move up the educational ladder; at another level, spokesmen began to insist that educational barriers, especially competitive examinations of any kind, be removed from the forward march of the black young.

At first these pressures concentrated on improvement of secondary education: New York's much advertised Higher Horizons project of the 1950's was started by a junior-high-school principal who had discovered that only about 4 per cent of the graduates of his school went on to college. Programs like Higher Horizons produced a steady but fairly slow expansion in the number of blacks proceeding to college. In 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act made the recruitment of blacks a prime goal of the poverty program, and New York funded its first College Discovery venture. The federal government dropped the other shoe in 1965 in promulgating the Higher Education Act, and a year later the state funded the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program, by which students from poor neighborhoods who were not otherwise eligible for regular admission to the City University four-year colleges were accepted into, and paid to attend, special programs run more or less by the colleges and designed to remedy deficiencies in skills and attitudes.

In 1969, nevertheless, a New York City school system that was more than half black and Puerto Rican in student composition was still feeding into a four-year college system that was less than one-tenth black and Puerto Rican. Economic conditions in the city, coupled with the immense demographic bulge of the age-classes born shortly after World War II, meant that a majority of “minority” college-age New Yorkers not in college were unemployed. Especially where the colleges were located in slums, pressure to do something for the young people of the neighborhood had become very strong.

At this time the Board of Higher Education, the controlling body of City University (appointed by the Mayor), began a number of studies looking toward the day when the university would undertake to accept all graduates of the city's high schools, regardless of their performance in high school or their achievement in examinations. In general, the evidence turned up by these studies was discouraging: the centerpiece, an examination of the high-school senior class by Vice-Chancellor Robert Birnbaum, produced a well-documented opinion that virtually every New York City high-school graduate reasonably ready for an ordinary college program was already going to college. Nevertheless, both Mayor Lindsay and City University Chancellor Albert Bowker felt a political need to affirm the eventual establishment of an Open Admissions program, to take effect some time in the mid-1970's—a date far enough in the future to ensure that their successors rather than they themselves would be stuck with the problem.

The model originally in mind was the California state system, with its three tiers of higher education: the universities, which accept the top 12 per cent of each high-school graduating class; separate four-year colleges, which take the balance of the top half; and the two-year junior colleges, which take the rest (plus some non-graduates of high schools). Among the drawbacks of this arrangement is the heavy concentration of blacks and Chicanos in California's junior colleges (a concentration that tends to get heavier as progress is made in desegregating the high schools: the top half of an all-black school is, of course, all black, while the top half of the high-school graduating class nationwide, as measured by standardized tests, is only about 3 per cent black). Such imbalances have consequences: the Black Panther party started at predominantly black Merritt Junior College a few miles down the road from what was an almost entirely white University of California at Berkeley. In New York, the planners had to consider also the fate of the students at the city's four selective-entrance college preparatory high schools. Most of the students who ranked in the bottom 10 per cent of the graduating class at the Bronx High School of Science, for example, were better prepared for college than most of the students in the top 10 per cent of some of the other high schools.

Moreover, if one assumed—as one had to assume—that the great majority of newcomers taken into the four-year colleges under any new program could not routinely handle college work, it was necessary to devise means of helping them catch up. Sensibly, Bowker took an interest in secondary education, and tried to arrange to have five public high schools put under the wing of City University, to experiment with new programs. Some work was already being done, through a program called “College Discovery Prong II,” in which university professors and students were working with about 1,500 high-school students selected in the ninth grade for their unlikelihood of proceeding to college. The city-wide Council Against Poverty had sabotaged this project in a fit of pique against the school system, withdrawing the $5 weekly grant the students had been paid in the first years of the experiment, and the Board of Education was being unhelpful, but the students were coming along much better than would have been anticipated from their ninth-grade academic and psychological test scores. Given actual control of some schools, the university might, just possibly, have been able to bring greater numbers of “disadvantaged” students up to the minimum levels of skill required for college.

But the Board of Education was unwilling to turn over control of any school (it still is), and in 1969 circumstance outran planning. In May, a small group of black students, abetted and probably led by militants from the neighborhood, “seized” the South Campus of City College on the western edge of Harlem. They chained the gates closed and themselves to the gates, vowing to remain in adverse possession until the Board of Higher Education met the five “demands” of the “movement.” The most important of these demands entailed a vast increase in the still small number of black and Spanish-speaking students at a college located in an exclusively black and Puerto Rican section of the city.

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Confronted with a court order, the demonstrators disappeared, but the situation they had dramatized did not.1 “It was not only the blacks,” says Frederick L. Burkhardt, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, who was then president of the Board of Higher Education. “It was the eight-thousand-dollar-a-year whites, saying, ‘We pay our taxes. We want to go to college, and we have the right to go to college.’ It was a demand that was irresistible.” City University Vice-Chancellor Seymour Hyman, an alumnus of City College's student body and professorate, remembers a slightly different scenario: “I got a call from Al Bowker—he was at a meeting somewhere and couldn't leave it, and there had been a report over the radio that the Great Hall of City College had been set on fire. I went up there, and I saw the smoke pouring from the windows. We had a meeting that night, and I was telling people about what I felt when I saw that smoke coming out of that building, and the only question in my mind was, How can we save City College? And the only answer was, Hell, let everybody in. . . .”

The compromise was worked out by Robert Birnbaum, a tall, elegant young man whose manner is closer to that of the Ivy League than to that of the City University. Allen Ballard, then head of the SEEK program at City—black, a former student of Merle Fainsod's at Harvard—was fighting for a compensatory approach and a quota for “Third-World” students (at least half of all entrants to City College). Others, politically more aware, were urging an expansion of SEEK, a sheltered college-within-a-college, rather than a quota system that would exclude “qualified” whites for the benefit of “unqualified” blacks. Birnbaum suggested that every high-school graduate be admitted to some branch of City University, even if his high-school work had been in a non-academic program, but also that everyone who would previously have qualified for one of the four-year colleges be guaranteed his place, and that the freshman classes at these colleges be expanded drastically to secure a better ethnic mix.

The formula Birnbaum worked out, which has been operative starting with the high-school graduating class of June 1970, was complicated and in the end not as effective as he and the Board had hoped. Each graduating senior from the city's high schools lists in rank order the colleges he would like to attend. For each college, the computer takes the first choices, up to the numbers accepted in 1969 (or half the total for the next year, if that figure is larger), simply by running down the grade levels. This produces a cut-off grade by college, and by program within the college if the programs admit separately (as engineering and nursing do, for example). In 1972, the cut-off grade for entry to Queens College (the highest) was 85; the cut-off grade for entry to City College was 775. The rest of the class is filled with students who did not achieve the cut-off grade but did achieve a rank in the graduating class of their own high school matching the citywide percentage of students who did achieve the cut-off grade. Thus, 23 per cent of the city's graduating seniors in 1972 averaged 85 or better, so anyone in the top 23 per cent of his own high-school class, regardless of his grades, was acceptable at Queens College. Sixty per cent of the city's graduating seniors averaged 77.5 or better, so anyone in the top 60 per cent of his graduating class was taken at City College—if City was his first choice or if he had failed to get in at his first choice and City was his second choice.

In general, the community colleges take what is left, though some students who could go to four-year colleges choose to attend a community college nearer their homes (transfer from community college to senior college is now automatic if a community-college graduate wishes to continue, so a student may feel he has nothing to lose by starting off in the neighborhood); and a few of the programs at the community colleges (nursing at New York City Community College in Brooklyn, for example) are so popular that their entrance requirements are higher than those of City College.

Birnbaum's scheme required that the entering classes at all the four-year colleges be substantially expanded—doubled, potentially. And if the high-school grades meant what they seemed to mean, new courses and programs would have to be developed to give the newcomers any chance at all. What the City College protesters had demanded, after all, was not access to higher education but possession of diplomas; they were not willing to accept what they called the “revolving door” approach of the Midwest land-grant colleges, where a third to a half of each entering class is flunked out before the end of the freshman year.

The man charged with finding or inventing and determining the cost of these programs was David Newton, dean of Baruch College, a former City College psychology professor and a tough-minded believer in his job. He is now vice-chancellor in charge of personnel for City University, and has been handling management's end of the interminable contract negotiations with the faculty union. (“As a reward for distinguished service in setting up the Open Admissions program and starting York College in Queens,” he says, “I have been sent to Vietnam.”) In retrospect, Newton is less than proud of the performance of his committee: “We were given less than a year, and one of the initial cues was that we weren't properly funded. And the sense of commitment and dedication I had expected from my colleagues was nowhere to be found.” But in any event, there was not much Newton and his committee could order people to do: they had no power. Each of the 18 colleges in City University is essentially autonomous, appointing its own faculty, offering its own courses, allocating the money it receives from headquarters according to its own perception of budgetary needs (except that everyone must live by the citywide union contract). Each was to make its own decisions as to the severity of the problems represented by Open Admissions, and devise its own programs accordingly. All Newton's committee could do was recommend an allocation of an extra $400 per student for special services (over and above the $1,700 per student that was in 1969-70 the standard budget formula), and suggest a reading of the literature of remediation (none of which is much good). “The only thing I regret,” Newton says, “is our failure to spend money to research and develop new educational techniques and curricula.”

“You had a faculty asked all of a sudden to do something they didn't know anything about,” says Chancellor Robert Kibbee, who arrived from Pittsburgh in 1971 to find Open Admissions in existence. “Even those who thought they knew couldn't conceive how badly many of these kids were prepared. Nobody knew really what he was doing. The combination of compassion and disbelief—and people who thought it was a lousy idea—meant that the first year, and [grudgingly] the second year, were a hell of a mess. It takes a lot of time to recover from a start like that.”

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II

In 1969, City University admitted a freshman class of just under 19,000; in 1970, the total was just under 35,000. At the time, a City University press release trumpeted the “fact” that the 1969 proportions had shown only 14 per cent black and Puerto Ricans, while the 1970 entrants were 33 per cent black and Puerto Rican; subsequent investigation showed that the 1969 proportion had actually been 19.7 per cent, and the 1970 proportion was only 26.2 per cent. Of the increase of 16,000 in the number of freshmen, “others” made up 10,000; and today's visitor to remedial courses at Hunter and Baruch will find them overwhelmingly white (less so at City and, this year, at Brooklyn). All high-school seniors applying to City University in 1970 were asked to take standardized tests for diagnostic purposes. The results showed that there were a few hundred Open Admissions students who did not in fact need remedial work in English or math—and no fewer than 6,000 regularly admitted students who did. (An effort was made to keep the scores on this test secret, but the figures leaked to the Times, and since then, to avoid similar publicity, each college has been told to administer its own test, the results of which are not collated at headquarters.) It is a sobering thought that in 1970 one-quarter of the entrants to City University who had earned grades of 80 or better in the city's high schools scored below the national average for twelfth-graders on a standardized reading test.

At some colleges, efforts were made to handle the influx of unprepared students by tutoring alone. Weaker freshmen were counseled to take fewer than the usual number of courses, and urged to try music-appreciation or sociology rather than chemistry or modern language; in addition, “buddies” were assigned from the ranks of upper-classmen to offer help on an unstructured basis. At most colleges, some special remedial courses in English and math were organized. Typically, these courses did not in the first year carry college credit; but today they do, almost everywhere in the City University system (job-oriented New York City Community College and Baruch College, once the business-school division of City College, are notable exceptions).

The decision to give college credit for what is often junior-high-school work has most often been taken strictly as a result of pressure from desperately unhappy (one remedial teacher at Baruch says “demoralized”) students who feel they are being asked to suffer and sweat “for nothing.” But there have also been practical reasons. Hostos Community College in the Bronx, for example, has a twelve-hour-a-week “Libra” program (remedial English, black or Puerto Rican history, performing arts, and social science) for students whose reading scores fall below tenth-grade level on entrance to college. Its “unique feature,” says Zane Rodriguez, the young chairman of the Hostos English Department, “is the credit-bearing remediation concept. The students can earn nine credits the first semester for the twelve hours. The Veterans' Administration, Model Cities, and the union all require that students take twelve hours and earn nine credits to be eligible for benefits. Libra keeps them eligible.”

At City College, the argument has been that the college's requirement of 128 credits for graduation is the highest in the city, and the awarding of credits for remedial courses is merely a way to bring City into line with its sister schools. At LaGuardia Community College, president Joseph Shenker takes the position that “the remedial program is part of the regular curriculum and we give credit for everything.” Hunter gives only one (rather than three) credits for the lowest-level reading course; only two for the upper-level reading course. But Queens, like LaGuardia, has decided that a course is a course, and its 40 freshmen who entered in 1972 with high-school grade averages below 76 (out of an entering class of 2,600) will receive a full semester's credit for a program of Reading 1; Remedial English 01; “Contemporary Civilization” on a low reading level; and a fourth course of their own choosing (something in the art or music field is recommended).

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Two of the new community colleges—Hostos, opened in 1970, and La-Guardia, opened in 1971—are operated on original principles designed in large part to help Open Admissions students, defined for community-college purposes as students whose grade average in high school is under 75 or whose preparation is in non-academic secondary programs. Such students constitute the majority of entrants at both of these colleges.

LaGuardia, located in a converted Sperry Rand factory in Long Island City, describes itself as “the first co-op community college.” Its academic year is divided into four quarters, and students must commit themselves for all four (teachers work three quarters). An entering freshman takes two quarters as a full-time student, and in his third quarter the college finds him a nine-to-five job, most frequently in a retail store, a city office, a bank, or an insurance company. The public schools also hire some students, and this fall ten LaGuardia students were in Puerto Rico working as teacher aides. The employer's reports on his work at the job become part of the student's academic record; LaGuardia keeps up with his progress through visits to the job site by a liaison staff and a “practicum,” a two-hour evening seminar that meets six times during the student's quarter on the job. Attendance at the “practicum” is compulsory.

In his fourth quarter, the student returns to school full-time; and in his second year he alternates quarters at school with quarters on the job (with a new “practicum” each time). Another LaGuardia innovation is an intensive week at which the student devotes full time to the study the beginning of each academic quarter during of a single urban topic, combining instruction and field observation in an ad hoc mix.

The current academic year is LaGuardia's second. Out of 550 students who started just after Labor Day in 1971, 400 were still matriculated when the current year began, but attrition in the students' fifth quarter (their second on a job) seems to have been higher than the college wants to admit. Students get unhappy at the department stores, where they are often used as stock boys and girls, and at the banks, where they typically start as teller trainees. Yet the job program, in the opinion of Harry Heinemann, the dean of the cooperative education division at LaGuardia, has educational advantages for both the students and the college quite apart from the money the students earn. “For our students, an educational experience means sitting on a chair and the teacher gives assignments—that's learning. Then there's the real world, which is different. We're giving them the idea that you learn from experiences on a job. Meanwhile, we can adjust our programs to the jobs available. . . .”

It would take much more time than I could spend at LaGuardia to form even a vague opinion about the chances for success of so new a program; the one “practicum” I attended was an infuriating disaster. About 70 per cent of the staff at LaGuardia are experienced college teachers; the rest come from high schools. Remediation involves course work plus “study labs” with standard remedial materials. On one level at least, the cooperative program has been a measurable success—jobs were in fact found for everybody the first two times around. This spring, however, LaGuardia will need no fewer than 650 thirteen-week jobs for its students, and may not be able to find them. Shenker crosses his bridges one at a time.

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Hostos represents an intellectually more radical venture than LaGuardia in adapting higher education to special needs. City University headquarters speaks of it as a college using programmed instruction and computer-assisted instruction as major elements, but in fact students are using neither programs nor computers. President Candido de Leon, a man in his late forties but much younger in appearance, developed the basic Hostos approach while working at the Board of Higher Education. (De Leon did not start the college himself; he was called back from sabbatical to rescue it after a disastrous first year.) The approach seeks to determine “performance objectives” for groups of brief “modules” which taken together constitute a course. Each module ends in a “milestone,” an examination the student takes when he or she feels ready for it, at a separate testing center. Some of the descriptions of these courses, as they appear in the catalogue, are pretty sorry stuff: Sociology 1231, for example, carrying three credits—“The student will be able to define or recognize [emphasis added] terms related to social mobility, role, status, race prejudice, and factors leading to social change.” And the tests given are nearly all teacher-tests administered when the teacher thinks the class should be ready—in standard academic style.

Hostos is located in a wretchedly crowded former factory loft in the Bronx; nearly 90 per cent of its students are Open Admissions students by the under-75 grade-level definition. They are older on the average than students at most of the colleges. Many are primarily Spanish-speaking, and 70 of the college's 150 courses are offered in Spanish as well as in English. “The first-year students,” de Leon says wearily, “were given the impression they could complete the entire program in Spanish. That was not my idea—they must have an intensive English program in case they wish to transfer; to tell them anything else would be irresponsible.” The career emphasis at Hostos is on health services; de Leon is still appalled by his predecessor's notion that people could work effectively in responsible jobs in New York City hospitals without a good reading knowledge of English.

Probably because of de Leon, there are people of unusual distinction on the Hostos faculty. Among the mathematics professors is Mariano Garcia, a smiling white-haired man who was chairman of the mathematics department at the University of Puerto Rico, has written a Spanish-English math dictionary, and teaches in both languages. Lois Lamdrin, who supervises the English end of Hostos's Libra program, taught at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon before she came to New York. “When I started,” she says, “I had all the white liberal biases about what these students could achieve if given complete freedom. We all lost those.” Quite apart from questions of “performance objectives,” which still bedevil all those in the non-science and non-vocational areas at Hostos, work in English is now pretty thoroughly structured, with assignments like writing descriptions of photographs supplied by the instructor, and vocabulary lessons like one relating to the five senses.

Most of what happens at Hostos is clearly not college work, but some of it is. Students in a recorder class (learning musical staff notation for college credit!) are carrying books which include Four Ibsen Plays, Bone's Freshman Calculus, and Broom & Selznick's Principles of Sociology. Almost inevitably, the college can show one really spectacular success: a Puerto Rican girl who got through the two-year program in one year, then went on to Queens College and got through her last two years of college in one year, and now is back at Hostos teaching while doing graduate work. Equally inevitably, the records are littered with failure; and the great majority of those who graduate are simply not ready for the third year of a senior college, to which they gain automatic entrance on presentation of the Hostos degree. Still, I for one will remember the hush that fell on Mariano Garcia's math class as he came to something his class found difficult but Professor Garcia said they had to know.

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At baruch, some of the remedial work in English is tied directly to course work in other subjects. (Similar procedures are apparently employed at Bronx Community College.) The remedial teachers, mostly former high-school (and junior-high) teachers, are separate from the rest of the faculty; most of the professors have taken the position that the Open Admissions students will have to get through the same courses everybody else gets through. (“Their expectations of what college freshmen should be able to do are way high,” says one of the remedial teachers, forgetting that these expectations derive from experience with regularly admitted students; one of the strengths, and dangers, of good remedial teachers is that they become strong partisans of their students.) So the remedial staff, now isolated in a freshmen-only annex where a high school used to be, schemes and works to get the Open Admissions students through the courses.

The device used is a “study lab,” which gathers together as many as possible of the students with reading problems who are taking a given course. The teacher goes over the textbook for this course with groups of perhaps a dozen students, outlining the ideas and reinforcing the vocabulary, sometimes helping with papers and with the spotting of items likely to be on future exams. Many Baruch professors are less than enthusiastic about this procedure—“They're afraid you're touching their subject matter,” says Stephen Urkowitz, an earnest young man who started in the Baruch remedial staff part-time while working toward his Ph.D. in English literature, and has chosen to identify with the remedial teachers rather than with the English Department. Still, the fact is that Baruch Open Admissions students in some numbers are getting through the same courses that the best of the regularly admitted students are taking, and this is not happening at many colleges in City University.

Dean Ballard, who should know, says that “the best programs in English are kind of uniform.” Last spring, more than 600 teachers working in English remediation at City University met at the Hotel Commodore for a two-day weekend conference which presumably should have spread the word about any original or especially successful program. Hunter has gone in for a “sector analysis” approach, derived from linguistics, for the teaching of writing skills; Brooklyn College is reputed to have a “bidialectal” program for black students whose spoken English diverges drastically from standard English.2 But so far there have been no breakthroughs, no techniques that can be transferred down to the high schools, and the New York City high schools continue to deteriorate.

The failures of both student and program are often distressing to watch. Nearly three months into the academic year, a group at Hunter was offered a lecture in how to use the library, essentially an introduction to the arcana of the Dewey decimal system, which is part of the fifth-grade curriculum. The librarian asked how many of the class of fifteen had used the library yet, and was rewarded by one rather tentatively raised hand, by a girl who said that she hadn't actually used it, but she worked at the library part-time. With the arrival of the first Open Admissions transfers from community colleges to the four-year colleges, professors in upper-level courses are meeting utterly intractable problems of sheer bewilderment in their students. “They've been getting A's,” said one, “and they're devastated when I have to give them D's. Now what I do is show them an A paper, and they're honest about it: they say, ‘I just can't do that.’ But I'm not sure what good it does them.” At City College, where the administration has forbidden the imposition of prerequisites, a larger than usual proportion of the faculty has been making contact with truly hopeless students, and have not the vaguest notion what they are supposed to do about it.

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Vice-Chancellor Hyman speaks approvingly of “compensatory courses,” intermediate between remedial and regular: “English 1, say, meets six times instead of three times a week, and for twice the time and effort the student gets the usual three credits.” Tom Carroll, assistant dean of the faculty at the New York City Community College, warns against this approach on the basis of advice from California, where he visited junior-college faculty who had been living with Open Admissions for a long time. “They all told me,” he says, “that if you attach a remedial course to a regular course the whole course becomes remedial.” What can be said for certain is that the most publicized (and interesting) such venture, Chemistry 5-6-7 at City College, can claim only very mixed results.

Chem 5 is the brainchild of Abraham Mazur, who has been at City for more than forty years, as a student and then as a professor, and who was chairman of the Chemistry Department when Open Admissions came about. Mazur's thesis was that Open Admissions students would be able to master the normal two-term first-year chemistry course if given three terms to do so, and that they would want to take such a course even though they could get only two-thirds credit for each semester's work. “Even the kid who was the worst prepared in high school,” Mazur says, “who did badly and knew it, has the same ambition as the Jewish middle-class kid: he wants to be a doctor.” The second part of the argument has proved entirely correct: enrollment in the first semester of Chem 5 has been high every term. But the first part is wrong: the students are in much worse shape, especially in mathematics, than Mazur had imagined. “I have identified kids,” he says sadly, “who don't know that 373 over 273 is greater than one.”

Of the 73 students who enrolled in the first semester in Chem 5, only four survived to enter the third semester—which is where college-level work begins. “By the spring of 1971,” Mazur recalls, “it was clear we were facing a disaster.” At a time when City College was removing all prerequisites to courses in the humanities and social sciences, Mazur arranged with the math department for an elementary algebra and remedial-arithmetic course that would henceforward be a prerequisite for students in Chem 5. By 1972-73, City College was giving full credit for each of the three semesters of Mazur's course (i.e., instead of working three semesters for two semesters' credit, the unprepared student now gets nine credits for—ideally—the same work that earns the prepared student only six credits). Mazur also convinced the nursing department that the first two semesters of his course should be enough to meet nurses' requirements in chemistry, and enrollment in Chem 5 mounted to 190 in fall 1972. But in the third semester of the course there were still only seventeen students, from an entry of 120 two terms before. And the first semester, which is all that most students enrolling in the course actually complete, is described by Mazur as “junior-high-school general science.” It is in fact a little better than that—Boyle's Law, which I watched being taught to a rather unreceptive class, is not in most junior-high programs—but it isn't much better.

Ivo Duchacek's course on Political Ideas and Issues, offered only to Open Admissions students at City, is probably more demanding. Duchacek is a white-haired Czech refugee whose scholarly concern has been with the fate of his motherland, and he is not teaching for the purpose of radicalizing his students. (He is also not teaching the course for gain: he has donated it to City College, over and above his normal load.) Two English instructors work with him on the problems of 27 students: they attend his classes and he attends theirs. All students are asked to read brief excerpts from material of some significance (mostly modern). The assignments are imaginative: in one, for example, Duchacek presents paragraphs by Fanon, Mao, Chiang, and Tourè, and asks his students to write two sentences—“just two”—answering the question, “What anxiety is common to all these men?” Of the current group of 27 students, Duchacek feels he may have some chance with 22: “I'm really pleased with them—the only thing is, their English is awful.” There were 70-odd in a similar class last year, and Duchacek reports that when he took over Professor Hans J. Morgenthau's work for a month this fall he found five former Open Admissions remedial students in Morgenthau's European theory course. “I watched them carefully and listened to their questions, and no doubt about it, they are ‘in.’”

Elsewhere, courses with names like Political or Urban Ideas and Issues are likely to be taught by instructors who feel humble before their illiterate Third-World students, to whom they believe will fall the honor of making the Revolution. Some of these courses lie below junior-high level: Hunter's first course in urban studies, for instance, sends students out on field trips to make color slides they will later screen for the class (rock music playing on a cassette as they go, to make the presentation multimedia). This is fourth-grade show-and-tell. “The course culminates,” said one of its young teachers, “in change strategies—the whole idea of change.” Even this stuff has its defenders. “Rhetoric,” says Hans Spiegel, who set up the course, “is the first important rung up the abstraction ladder.” But college is late in the game for a first step toward abstraction.

As for black-studies courses, many of these are doubtless “revolutionary” in tone; neither time nor patience permitted an investigation, and anyway, access is usually by invitation only. At both City and Hunter, and perhaps elsewhere, there is pressure to permit black and Spanish-speaking students to take all or nearly all their courses in a black-studies or Puerto-Rican studies department. This is not the place to hash over once again the pros and cons of such departments: clearly, there is a need for a black perspective in all social and historical studies; equally clearly, black-studies departments often become shelters for untalented students, and in education as in the economy, protective tariffs typically lead to overpriced and shoddy goods.

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III

In an article in City Almanac last summer, Joe L. Rempson of Bronx Community College projected “attrition rates” of 60 to 70 per cent for Open Admissions students in the senior colleges, 70 to 80 per cent for Open Admissions students in the junior colleges. Rempson considered these figures “astonishing”—and indeed they are, though not in the sense Rempson intended; for the evidence of their previous schoolwork would have argued that virtually none of these students could handle a full program of higher education without kinds and degrees of help beyond what CUNY has provided. Until the fall of 1972, when Manhattan and Queensborough Community Colleges wielded a small ax, no Open Admissions students were flunked out anywhere in the City University system, and the 50 per cent or so who left during the first two years did so on their own.

A substantial proportion of those who leave the colleges do so for economic reasons: many are from fearfully poor families, and find $1.40 a day in carfare a heavy burden to carry. But there is no question among either supporters or opponents of Open Admissions that a considerable majority of the survivors are doing badly. They are mostly dull students, and they sit as dull students will in a class, wrapped in an invisible blanket that protects them from all the things they do not dare. For what the observation is worth, the black and Puerto Rican students seem on the average more alert: the counselors' typical statement that “test scores do not really predict performance for black students” is not just propaganda for the cause. Still, most of the black and Puerto Rican students accepted under Open Admissions are doing badly, too.

What constitutes “success” for the Open Admissions venture is an impossible question to answer. When the doors first opened to the freshmen of 1970, Vice-Chancellor Timothy S. Healy told Time magazine that if “20 per cent of these kids get a degree, that's 20 per cent above zero.” Recently Mrs. Jacqueline Wexler, president of Hunter College, commented that “if we can move 25 per cent of these kids it would be the greatest thing in the history of New York.” No one (except, unfortunately, the students themselves) expects Open Admissions entrants to complete their degree work in four years: conventionally admitted freshmen at City University, and their peers in the country's other urban colleges, average little short of three years for an A.A., six years for an A.B. The final figures are thus a long time away. And it should be remembered that the 75 per cent who do not complete the course are not necessarily losers. “The institution may want them to get a degree,” says Harry Heinemann of the cooperative education program at LaGuardia Community, “but if they take thirty hours and that gets them a job they like, they haven't failed—they've succeeded.”

On the other hand, what defines failure for Open Admissions is an easy question to answer: it is a decline in the respect accorded to a diploma from a branch of City University. “If we move 60 per cent of these kids through social promotion,” says Mrs. Wexler, using an elementary-school term of art, “it will be a disaster for the city. Unless the city can be got to see that, we will be doing a terrible disservice.”

City headquarters has begun judging the colleges by the numbers of credits Open Admission students receive—and the students themselves, of course, have been learning from the grapevine about teachers who pass everybody. With the elimination of all degree requirements other than numbers and the removal of prerequisites from all courses at places like City College, the chance to collect empty credits has been multiplied, and so has the chance to collect empty diplomas. The losers will be not only the regular students, but also that fraction of the Open Admissions students who in fact complete a valid college program at what Vice-Chancellor Hyman calls “some level of acceptability.” Marvin Schick, a former Hunter political-science professor who is liaison between the Mayor's office and CUNY, points out that “many state universities, including some famous ones, were giving diplomas for very low qualities of work for years, and the country was none the worse for it.” But the fact is that high-school diplomas are being given today in New York for work below anything that would be considered acceptable outside big cities, and it is hard to see why City University will not follow the same path.

The pressures City University must resist are not just political. Open Admissions has turned most of the campuses into enclosures crowded to the limits of endurance. Four-year colleges in the State University system outside the city average about 205 “gross square feet” per student, excluding residential space; City University four-year colleges in fall 1971 averaged 86 “gross square feet” per student. (The opening of new buildings at CCNY and Brooklyn improved this figure to 97 GSF in 1972, but better than that it will not be in this decade.) It is not uncommon to see students sitting on the floor in the hallways, getting some work done between classes; at Hunter College during class breaks the elevators are as jammed as a rush-hour subway car. The atmosphere is uncivilized, denying all those values beyond course work which a college is supposed to inculcate.

One of the greatest threats to the quality of the diplomas may come from the growth of a central City University bureaucracy that will, like all bureaucracies, seek neat answers to difficult questions. Already some of the resemblances to the Board of Education are startling and frightening. (When I called and told the secretary of a vice-chancellor that I was writing an article about Open Admissions and wished to see her boss, she said sweetly, “You want his permission to write the article?”) A central task force is now at work on the problem of continuing racial imbalance among the campuses, and it will probably recommend a “comprehensive school” solution, with everyone to take the first two years at two-year colleges. “That,” says Mrs. Wexler, “would really be the destruction of the city.” But it may happen.

_____________

Though the numbers of able students entering the city colleges have not dropped seriously, the proportion of able students a professor encounters during his day is down considerably; and at some of the branches, notably City College, it seems possible that the tipping point has been passed. This is a grievous worry. “The performance of a given staff,” says City's Abraham Mazur, “will depend on the presence of a certain number of really good students. It's happened to me—I put out more, I'm more creative, when I have really good students. We felt the difference here when the cut-off dropped from 85 to 82 back in the 1950's, and now. . . . If it weren't for the Chinese we'd be in trouble already.”

“I can't fault the faculty for the psychological problem they obviously face,” says Chancellor Kibbee. “It's much more fun to confront the student at something like your intellectual level. If I'd been a professor at CCNY for ten or fifteen years, I'd wonder whether all this was worth it. If you start at some teachers' college in western Pennsylvania and work your way up to Yale it's very different from starting at Yale and winding up at a teachers' college in western Pennsylvania—even if you get a bigger title and a bigger salary.”

Even the carefully-maintained facade of official optimism about Open Admissions has developed serious cracks. Explaining the failure of his planning committee to give people anything of substance to do with the newcomers, David Newton says, “Does a college belong in the remedial business? No. But I figured we could carry it for five or ten years without seriously damaging our educational function, and by then the high schools would be repaired. . . .” Vice-Chancellor Hyman worries that “the soft areas are heavily oversubscribed, and increasingly so. Things like sociology. It seems to be an easy curriculum: people feel that all you have to be is sufficiently verbal and you can survive it.” The integrity of the diploma, Hyman says, “involves reliance on the professional integrity of the professor.” That's an awfully weak reed in an age when administrators demand results and so many professors have lost their nerve without losing their vanity.

“There's no real way you can maintain the standards of the diploma from this office,” says Chancellor Kibbee, adding that while he would consider the graduation of 30 per cent of the first Open Admissions group “a qualified success,” he would then “like to make it 40 per cent.” To the extent that the pressure from headquarters is to give more and more credits and more and more diplomas, the deck is stacked against those in the faculties who care about what the diploma certifies. Nothing is more disturbing in this connection than CUNY's expressed desire to load the private colleges with the same problems, and the same pressures to award unearned degrees. Thus, major efforts will be made in the state legislature in the next few years to develop grant mechanisms to lure financially pressed NYU and Columbia and the city's other private colleges into taking on large numbers of unprepared students. Vice-Chancellor Timothy Healy says, “So long as Open Admissions is solely in the public sector, it will merely substitute the question of where did you go to college for the question of did you go to college.” But surely the question would not arise in this form if CUNY maintained the quality of its diploma.

Yet when all one's outrage at these attitudes has been expended, it remains true that what is most objectionable in the promotion of Open Admissions is merely a natural outgrowth of the abuse of educational credentials by employers and, indeed, by the public at large. The students at LaGuardia Community College are entirely right in their argument that one does not need a college education to be a bank teller, but as the supply of college graduates increases, the banks will certainly begin to demand an A. B. from all candidates for such positions. When there was a shortage of engineers in this country, employers happily imported English “engineers” who had been through a year or two of post-secondary training—but they would not hire Americans with less than a B.S. The “nursing profession” has now succeeded in imposing an A.B. prerequisite on future nurses in New York State. Many of our best airline captains are alumni of high school and the World War II air force, but now neither the airlines nor the air force will accept for pilot training anyone who does not have a bachelor's degree. One can easily foresee a future in which policemen, factory foremen, barbers, morticians, apartment-house janitors, TV repairmen will be required to show possession of a baccalaureate.

_____________

Despite many gloomy forecasts, America need never worry about a large class of unemployed college graduates: the system is rigged so that demand must grow to meet the available supply. What will happen to the colleges in the process is visible in the current plight of the high schools. But higher education today is intellectually defenseless against the insistence on ever-expanding enrollments, and ever-easier degrees. “The American university,” Reck Niebuhr of Temple once said, “has failed to conceptualize its manpower function.” And in the meanwhile it has become saddled with a function it cannot perform.

There are more false gods here than one can shake a stick at. Education is inherently a promoter of inequality. The musically talented and the tone deaf play the fiddle equally well in a community where there is no violin teacher; once instruction begins, a gap develops. Very nearly the only operational truth ever demonstrated in education is that something must be worth doing if the results of the work show some improvement for everybody and a widening of the gap between the best and the poorest. The better the training the more salient the revealed differences in natural ability; only academicians who live in the literature of their subject rather than in their experience could even imagine education as a promoter of equality. More strikingly for individuals than for groups (as Christopher Jencks has so wearisomely pointed out), education can open opportunities that would be closed in its absence. But its necessary social function in a complex modern society must be to raise the general floor under performance and understanding, not to reduce the distance between the floor and the ceiling.

Though I know many brilliant people I would not care to have as my doctor or my lawyer or my children's teacher, it is undoubtedly true that a unidimensional measure of academic excellence can be used to set a special, higher floor for many occupations and professions. The ardently egalitarian researchers of the American Council on Education are fundamentally unconvincing: one can dismiss them with the curse that they should cross the river on a bridge designed by an engineer from an engineering school where students were admitted by lottery; and that their injuries should then be treated by a doctor from a medical school where students were admitted by lottery; and that their heirs' malpractice suit should then be tried by a lawyer from a law school where students were admitted by lottery. The problems even of affluent America are not primarily distributive—it still makes an immense, perhaps even a growing, difference who does how well a large number of highly skilled and difficult jobs. But that number is already much smaller than the number of college-trained workers, and it is surely appropriate to wonder what social function is served by maintaining high “standards” for credentials that then grant exclusive access to jobs that can be done just as well by people who have not achieved such standards.

The Open Admissions students deserve better than that: despite all the media images, they are in overwhelming proportion grave, earnest, desperately hardworking, and insecure. It is not their fault that they must make their rites of passage to adulthood in a society that values not education itself—let alone learning—but the institutional evidence that education has occurred. They are not very bright, most of them, but their perception of their social situation is correct.

No doubt college does civilize some who were merely acculturated by elementary and secondary education. Higher education for those who wish to understand better and enjoy more profoundly should always be “open,” voluntary on both sides. But these are not the drives that can (or will) fill City University (or combine to finance it at a rate of nearly half a billion dollars a year). What is beating at all the universities—but especially at CUNY—is involuntary education on the tertiary level, the forced prolongation of an outworn adolescence for purposes that are quite separate from the civilizing Idea of a university.

1 The President of City College was then Buell Gallagher, and among his early concessions was the closing of the North Campus, where engineering students had continued to attend classes. It did not occur to Gallagher that his sympathy for those chained to his gates gave him no authority to continue spending public money on his faculty and staff (at a rate of $40 million or so a year) while prohibiting them from performing any publicly useful functions. The then City Comptroller, Mario Procaccino, went to court for an injunction to force the Board of Higher Education to keep City College open and in business. This action later won him the Democratic mayoralty nomination, and won the rest of New York four more years of John V. Lindsay.

2 A visit to this Ford-funded operation was entirely unproductive. Its operators first wanted me to understand that the Times had made a lot of unnecessary trouble for them by saying that they stressed the validity of Black English, when really what they were stressing was “giving the students standard English rhetorical style, to help them pass courses.”
“Of course. What do you give the students to do?”
“We're adapting an English-as-a-second-language approach.”
“Fine. What do the students do?”
“The students who tend to have the problems are those who have been turned off by the cultural identifications of standard English. The way we have taught them in the past has not taken account of what they come into the classroom with.”
“Yes. But what do you then ask them to do?”
“You look at what the student brings with him. You have to get rid of those attitudes he has, that he's been making random errors. You make the student aware, get him to see that when he makes this mistake it's nothing to be ashamed of. His language is in conflict with the standard language.”
“All right. What do you do to make him aware?”
“What we do is focus on the dialect grammar, systematically. Where the grammars conflict and where they don't conflict. Opens up a whole new world for them—they're not intimidated by the English class again. And we're doing this with these students at a time when they're becoming very conscious of their own identity. That adds tremendously to their motivation to learn.”
“Sure. What materials do you use?”
“We're developing our own book.”
“May I see some of it?”
“No. We've had too many bad experiences with people coming in and picking up our ideas and using them to get foundation grants of their own.”
“May I sit in on a class?”
“No. I don't want to talk to you any more. You're patronizing and hostile. . . .”
“[departing] . . . If you have something you are doing with these students that is genuinely helpful to them, you have an obligation to trumpet it to the world, not hide it.”
Then, with that mixture of rage and despair unique to this problem: “We'll trumpet it when we've got it. You can't trumpet something that doesn't exist yet.”
This project is now in its third year, and the people running it are intelligent. What is to be done?

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