Open admissions is a type of college admissions process in the United States in which the only criterion for entrance is a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. An outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid 1900s, refers to the educational experiment at The City University of New York (CUNY) in the 1970s which changed the colleges’ admissions standards to allow more students a chance at higher education.
2 The Five Demands
3 Political and Racial Tensions
The events leading up to Open Admissions within the University system began nearly a decade before the actual program itself. Throughout the decade following World War II, the student body of CCNY (then integrated into the CUNY system in 1961) became increasingly diverse. However, the overwhelming majority of the students were still predominantly “white,” with middle-class Jewish, Irish, and Italian populations the most represented minorities, and by the mid- to late 1960s, middle-class Catholics constituted a third, and in some place, as much as 40 percent, of the student body (Lavin, et al, p. 4). In 1963, then Chancellor Dr. Albert Bowker, who would become the primary force behind the early changes that would form the foundation of and culminate in the Open Admissions Program of the 1970s, realized that the political support that CUNY enjoyed could disappear if the University system continued its highly selective admissions process (Lavin, et al, p. 6) In response to the ever-increasing number of applicants to the university, Bowker suggested a plan to prevent CUNY from becoming “an exclusive college catering to the academic elite,” which would provide for enrollment of 100,000 students by the end of the ‘60s. So, in 1965, the pre-baccalaureate program, eventually absorbed by SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge), was started in response to the criticisms of black and Hispanic leaders challenging CUNY’s use of public funds, considering how few minorities were admitted to the colleges. It provided special stipends to allow predominantly black and Puerto Rican students living in the ghettos to attend remedial programs meant to prepare them for entrance into mainstream college programs. However, by the middle of 1965, New York City’s financial troubles were mounting and, in the fall of 1966, CUNY admitted its smallest freshman class in years and, while more and more minorities and underprivileged whites were graduating from high school, but the make-up of the CUNY senior college classes were still predominantly white and middle-class, with blacks and Hispanics continuing to be underrepresented.
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, led to several Civil Rights demonstrations on CUNY campuses that year, and in November 1968, a petition circulated on the CCNY campus by a Marxist organization, the black DuBois Club, stated that 55% of students in public high schools were black or Hispanic, compared with only 10% of students at CCNY. This petition, addressed to CCNY President Buell Gallagher, carried a list of demands, was signed by about 1500 students (which represented approximately 10% of the student body at CCNY), and the President responded by placing himself in agreement with the petitioners and listed changes already underway that addressed the students’ concerns. However, In February 1969, a new minority group called The Committee of Ten, made up of both black and Puerto Rican student leaders, “called upon the CUNY administration to alleviate ‘conditions that deny the very existence of the Black and Puerto Rican community.’” (Lavin, et al, 10), and the Committee issued the now-famous, non-negotiable “Five Demands.”
The Five Demands
1.) The establishment of a separate black and Puerto Rican freshmen orientation program controlled by minority upperclassmen
2.) The creation of a separate, degree granting School of Black and Puerto Rican Studies
3.) The matriculation of SEEK students and the control of the SEEK program, with the demand that those working in the SEEK program be given equal status with other degree-holding faculty, and that the director of SEEK be given Dean status
4.) That the composition of the student body at City University reflect the composition of the racial and economic make-up of the public high school system of the City of New York (40% black and Hispanic at the time)
5.) That all majors in the School of Education attain basic proficiency in Spanish and in Black and Puerto Rican Heritage
These “Five Demands” would remain at the heart of the protests that followed. In February, the Committee formed a party called the New World Coalition (NWC), with a platform that demanded “universal free higher education.” But by March, CUNY faced budget and admissions cuts and Chancellor Bowker’s announced that CUNY might be forced to eliminate fall enrollment completely. Several student groups organized and marched on CUNY campuses, culminating in a massive demonstration of 13,000 students on March 18, on the Albany campus. Then Governor Rockefeller assuaged the protestors by claiming that CUNY officials had overestimated the impact of budget cuts, but on April 1 it was announced that, while the budget would be larger than CUNY administrators estimated, it was still $20 million less than requested. This announcement prompted the resignation of twenty-three of the twenty-seven department chairs at CCNY, as well as President Gallagher, and caused, on April 21, the demonstration of the Black and Puerto Rican Student Community (BPRSC), which marched on the main campus of the City College of New York’s Harlem campus, the oldest and most famous of the CUNY institutions, with some two-hundred students, evicting students already on campus and taking control of eight of the university’s buildings, chaining off the college gates and demanding increased access to the public institutions of higher learning for underrepresented minorities. They proposed to control the campus until the “Five Demands” were met. The next day, a radical white political group took control of a ninth building in a show of support. However, white support overall was mixed. The student demonstrators made it clear that their demands were unrelated to the then-escalating protests against the Vietnam war, even going so far as to keep the anti-Vietnam protestors, who were predominantly white, away from the CCNY protests.
Political and Racial Tensions
President Buell Gallagher closed all classes campus wide and tried to negotiate the “Five Demands.” He was supported in his efforts by Mayor Lindsay, but one of the candidates for mayor, City Comptroller Mario Procaccino, with the support of Congressman Mario Biaggi, both representing white, working class constituencies, called for the immediate re-opening of the college and accused Mayor Lindsay of concentrating too heavily upon the needs of blacks and Puerto Ricans, his election base, to the exclusion of the needs of Jews, and lower-middle-class Irish and Italians. Negotiations soon crumbled under these political pressures, and Gallagher, who had initially said he would not call in the police, was forced to call the police onto the campus to quell the riot that ensued, a situation which culminated in the burning of the auditorium on May 8, and eventually led to the resignation of President Gallagher on May 29, 1969. He was replaced by Dr. Robert E. Marshak in September, 1970, who would remain President of CCNY through 1979 and oversee the implementation of the Open Admissions Experiment. On May 23, the CUNY administration proposed a “dual-admission” program that would admit 50% of students from the poorer, ghetto high schools, and 50% under the traditional, competitive criteria, a proposal which was almost universally criticized as a “quota” system destined to fail, so the plan was eventually scrapped, with the Faculty Senate proposing, instead, to bring in a few hundred extra students from the poor neighborhoods of New York City. But the Central Labor Council head, Harry Van Arsdale, who represented a large portion of the unionized, working class Irish- and Italian-Catholic whites in the city, argued that only a program that guaranteed admission to all would be successful and universally acceptable, and this Open Admissions policy soon gained favor amongst most groups, allowing for both the solution to the admissions problems and providing a reason for unprecedented expansion of the University. City officials were not consulted until after the resolution had been ratified, but they eventually supported it, and the ratification of the Open Admissions program helped to secure the reelection of Mayor Lindsey. The first class of freshmen to be admitted to CUNY through Open Admissions entered Fall semester, September 1970.
In many ways, Open Admissions was doomed to failure. This was due to a number of reasons – including the political nature of the program, the extent of the difficulties that revealed themselves in these new students, resistance from academics inside CUNY, a lack of financial resources, and the very faulty basic premise that academic performance in high-school and scores on standardized tests do not measure academic ability and therefore predict academic success. All of these factors played a role in shifting CUNY from consideration as the jewel in New York’s education, once called the “Harvard of the proletariat”, to Rudy Giuliani’s description of the state of CUNY as “really sad”.
Certainly, no one appreciated the extent of the problems that were exhibited by Open Admissions students, and the extent to which they lacked the basic skills they needed to succeed in the university. It quickly became apparent that these students required a great deal of remediation, a level of remediation that stretched university resources to the limit. The struggle to properly support Open Admissions students was exacerbated by the lack of experience that many teachers had in remediating these skills; most of the teachers were used to teaching the cream of the crop and they therefore lacked the knowledge to help these students effectively. Despite this, innovative teachers like Mina P. Shaughnessy devoted their energy to these students and did important work in helping understand the reasons for the lack in basic skills, and provided ways to teach those skills in a university setting. Teachers of this caliber were few, however, and their efforts were thwarted by scholars at CUNY who felt that standards were falling and the lack of financial resources to support these programs. This created what James Traub, in his book City on a Hill, describes as the "culture fostered by the [open] admissions commitment." He remarked:
“Teachers who knew that they couldn't insist on the highest standards without losing much of their class had succumbed to the ethos of mediocrity . . . they waved as students went on to the next level, still locked in the simplest patterns of thought. And this was so despite City's very high attrition rate, which one could interpret either as proof of the school's high standards . . . or as a sign that the majority of students were unable to meet even fairly forgiving standards.”
What Traub controversially points out is that there were real problems experienced in implementing Open Admissions at CUNY, and these problems were most distinctly reflected in falling graduation rates, although the impact of those rates is still open to debate. Significantly, in 1975, New York was hit by a slowing economy and CUNY was struggling to survive financially, so CUNY decided to do away with the free admissions that had been available to students. The lack of financial resources forced CUNY to require tuition of students, which had another adverse effect on the university. This was the first time that CUNY had ever charged for tuition in its history, so middle class white students who had previously attended CUNY because of the tuition waiver decided to rather attend universities in other parts of the country. This meant that more and more of the students at CUNY were coming from a disadvantaged background, with the remedial problems that extended form that background, and graduation rates began to fall. Another impact of this is that a number of CUNY’s top scholars also migrated to other universities, thereby creating a cycle of depression for CUNY.
Robert Fullinwider explains the impact of these numbers:
“After five years, 26 percent of open-admissions students who entered a CUNY senior college in 1970 had graduated, 16 percent were still in school, and 58 percent had dropped out. By contrast, 48 percent of regular-admissions students had graduated, 12 percent were still in school, and 40 percent had dropped out. Disaggregated by race, the figures show that 23 percent of black open-admissions students in the 1970 class, and just 19 percent of Hispanic students, had graduated by 1975. In contrast, approximately 35 percent of white open-admissions students had gotten their degrees. The gap between the graduation rates for minority open-admissions students (21 percent) and regular-admissions students (48 percent) was even more substantial. Then as now, minority open-admissions students were likely to be older than regular-admissions students. They were also more likely to come from poor families, to work full- or part-time, and to exhibit academic deficiencies.”
Yet despite the startling statistics there is another side to this data. Fullinwider points out that it may be misleading to focus on graduation rates only after five years. By looking at the data from the year 1984, nearly 10 years later, it shows that 56 percent of students had earned a B.A., including 49 percent of blacks. He says: “Because of their weaker academic preparation and their greater need to work while in school, minority open-admissions students traveled the route to a B.A. more slowly, but travel the route they did, in substantial numbers.” By looking at looking at the percentage of graduation figures over six years the percentage of graduating students rises from 8% to 32%, which is a significant increase. This means that a number of disadvantaged students received access to an opportunity that they never would have received. Fullinwider points out that in follow-up studies, Lavin and Hyllegard estimate that for an arbitrarily selected year in the late 1980s, these students earned $67 million more than they could have expected without their college degrees. This is something that critics of open admissions generally fail to consider.
But the fact is that these lower graduation rates would always be a concern. Even today, there is a great deal of very political discussion as to what the benefits and downsides of Open Admissions are. Different parties have tried to measure the progress of Open Admissions students, with markedly different results, some of which shows that it is a program that fails both the students and the university, while others point to substantial improvements in the lot of the lives of Open Admissions students. The problem is that the different research parties, all who have a vested interest in the outcome, measure variables in their research in different, but important, ways.
Still, these rates caused the CUNY board of directors in 2002 implemented new admission measures that effectively brought Open Admissions to an end. The problem is that these new measures, which require basic proficiency and math, reading and writing for all entering students, will exclude many of the students who were provided an opportunity that they would not have otherwise enjoyed. There is also a great deal of debate about which skills that are lacking in students can prevent students from ever succeeding in the university. It seems that a lack of basic skill in reading has a significant impact on student success, whereas deficient skills in writing and math can be remediated with appropriate support and instruction. This is linked closely to the issue of standards, and becomes a basis for excluding students. CUNY has decided to exclude students on the basis of a lack of basic skills in reading, writing, and math, despite there is evidence that if a student is deficient in either math or writing that there is a viable opportunity to improve on those skills. CUNY’s board has simply decided to push remediation of basic skills back in community colleges, saying that that is the best venue for such instruction. The problem is that there is significant research support showing that students who go to community colleges graduate at a lesser rate than if they went to 4-year universities.
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