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The Old College Try

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Predicting how many students will be left out in the cold by the CUNY policy is as tricky as forecasting how many schoolkids will be held back once social promotion ends (as Rudy Crew so painfully found out over the summer). The projections are all over the place: Early this year, CUNY predicted that a whopping 43 percent of its 13,000 freshmen would be locked out of the senior colleges once remediation is cut out. That figure dropped to 12 percent once Badillo asked CUNY to come up with a "best case" scenario, factoring in rosy expectations for new, tougher high-school Regents requirements. Finally, in the fall, just as the State Board of Regents was looking over the proposal, new chancellor Matt Goldstein presented new data claiming the figure had dropped to 2 percent. "We're dealing with a very dynamic environment of change, happening month by month," Goldstein explains.

It sure looks like wishful thinking. More than half of CUNY's first-year students currently fail more than one remedial exam. Two years ago, only 29 percent of City College freshmen passed all of CUNY's skills-assessment tests. Almost all of City College's students are minorities -- making the policy seem almost intentionally targeted to lock out the very students it opened its doors to 30 years ago.

At the community colleges, where remediation will escalate, there's no consensus on the policy. "For more than ten years, a third of my class hasn't passed, and often these are people who are taking it the second time," says Nahma Sandrow, who has taught remedial English at Bronx Community College for 30 years. "The best-prepared and the smartest students I see could be doing better. But we tell them this is college, and they take our word for it."

But Sally Mettler, who has taught English as a second language at La Guardia Community College since 1985, worries that the policy will only alienate students further. "This articulation of standards is actually an anti-intellectual thing to do, because it ignores the diversity of the population," she says. "I see the report as weeding out people who don't fit in, and therefore giving yourself an easier task. To me, it's like a fifties model -- a factory model."

" CUNY will be inundated with enrollment -- not the first year, but as quickly as two to three years," Schmidt predicts. "If you set clear standards, relatively more people will meet them." He trumpets the increased enrollment at Baruch College, where standards were raised and remediation exiled. What's missing from the forecast, though, is how harsh the transition period might be if this strategy is employed system-wide -- and what kind of student body will be left once the dust settles.

Herman Badillo, perhaps, has the most invested in banishing remediation. He has been campaigning for open admissions' downfall ever since it first arrived. And if and when the 70-year-old Republican runs for mayor in 2001, Badillo tells me, "I will be able to point to the establishment of standards at the City University of New York."

Of course, Badillo couldn't have done it alone. The remediation plan would never have gone through without Schmidt to carry the ball. "To get an Ivy League president involved was a real coup," Badillo admits. "To have me head up the task force would be seen as biased. But since he was president of Yale, no one can say he doesn't know what he's talking about."

Whether CUNY's reputation paled over the years because its budget shrank, or its budget shrank because its reputation declined, is the essential chicken-or-egg question of the impasse. Democratic and Republican administrations alike have seen fit to slash CUNY's budget: In the past twenty years, government funding dropped by 40 percent, and the proportion of CUNY's budget funded by the government decreased 24 percent. While other big states like Texas, Georgia, and Illinois spent the nineties raising higher-education funding by 10 percent or more, Albany (still CUNY's principal funding source, other than tuition) cut its per-student higher-education appropriations by more than a third.

By now, the damage is obvious. Between 1974 and 1998, full-time faculty dropped more than 50 percent, from 11,268 to 5,211, while enrollment decreased just 22 percent. And while half the student body is currently at or below the poverty line, the past decade of tuition increases has increased the student contribution to CUNY's budget by more than 150 percent -- more than anywhere else in the country. Even conservative thinkers like City College alum Nathan Glazer have cried out for more funding. "We are 'adrift' because the politicians haven't given us the budget we need not to be adrift," says Irwin Polishook, head of CUNY's faculty union.

Faced with all this evidence, the Schmidt task force still downplayed the budget issue -- so much so that some people concluded that Schmidt's CUNY agenda is really about downsizing. Since the report, the most significant budget-request increases have been for new faculty in just four CUNY academic programs -- Schmidt's selective excellence in action. "We know that the agenda of their political masters is privatization," says College of Staten Island history professor Sandi Cooper, a plaintiff in the remediation lawsuit. "I suspect that by shrinking enrollment by refusing to let students in who need remedial work, they're going to try to close a couple colleges. Then they'll have war on their hands."

Schmidt, however, turns the equation on its head. "I am a pretty easy person to persuade about investing in education as a taxpayer," he says with that breathy chuckle. "But would I invest in CUNY when it's not a true system? That just strikes me as a nonstarter. How could anybody not say, 'Come on! Get your act together!'? I mean, some people may argue that CUNY is about the same as Jersey City State or San Francisco State. That is total denial. They will never persuade political leaders or the business community -- a major, major segment of the public from which they derive their support."

This is Benno Schmidt's real crusade. From Yale to Edison to CUNY, he's yearned to be education's agent of change. If CUNY follows just a few simple instructions, he may fully change the identity of the place -- and, by extension, the whole world of public higher-education. In return, Schmidt may finally get the kind of pedagogical and social influence he has always wanted. And with for-profit players along for the ride, of course, he'll be doing well by doing good.

"You know, it was the Harvard of the poor," he tells me, leaning forward in his chair. "It wasn't the Jersey City State of the poor."


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