Debate continues over standards for college admissions New York system votes for greater selectivity


NEW YORK -- Tougher admission policies adopted by the City University of New York will go a long way toward restoring the relatively selective standards the university's 11 senior colleges maintained before open admissions were instituted, many university administrators and professors agree.

But there are deep divisions over whether such selectivity is entirely a good thing. Some say that requiring students to pass skills tests for admission will enhance the value of a senior college degree. Others worry that requiring remediation at community colleges will dishearten students who could have flourished in a senior college environment.

The changes approved by CUNY trustees Tuesday put a new screening tool in the hands of four-year colleges. While those schools have long required students to have high school averages in the low- or mid-80s, under the new policy even a student with a high average or high SAT scores will be denied admission to a senior college if unable to pass the skills tests.

In the 1960s, students had to have a combination of a strong high school average - in the mid- to high-80s - and reasonably good scores on the SAT for admission to senior colleges such as Queens, Brooklyn, Hunter and City. Admission to the two-year programs of the community colleges required lower high-school averages and, except for a few programs, no SAT.

But, in 1969, facing protests from black and Hispanic students, the university instituted a policy that it called open admissions. The intention was to allow more minority students into a system that was overwhelmingly white. The change in policy guaranteed a high school graduate a place at a community college. At CUNY's 11 senior colleges, however, admissions were not open. Admission to the four-year baccalaureate programs required a position in the top half of the graduate's high school class or an 80 average.

With professors confronting thousands of students who they felt were not prepared for college work, the university greatly expanded its remediation programs. These programs - which, critics of the new standards point out, had been there even in more academically rigorous days - would be removed from the senior colleges under the rules approved last week.

The university took a first step in returning to tighter admission standards in 1976. It kept the requirement of an 80 average for senior colleges but raised the standard for class rank to the top third of the high school graduating class. University officials also imposed tests in reading, writing and mathematics before students could move into the junior and senior baccalaureate years. (These same skill tests will be used for admission, rather than for placement.)

In 1995, the university let each of the senior colleges set its own standards for admission. Many set their own cutoff marks for high school averages and stopped accepting students from the top third of their high school classes.

Bernard Sohmer, chairman of the university's faculty senate, cited the cases of two City College students - one an immigrant from Vietnam, the other from China, who ended up as valedictorians after they were required to take remedial classes. Sending such students to two-year community colleges might deter them from the academic track of a senior college and lead them into the trades in which community colleges specialize, he said.

"Kids are fragile," Sohmer said. "If you bounce them back and forth, there's bound to be some slippage."

Such students might be more persistent if they are taking more provocative courses, such as political science or psychology, while they complete remedial classes, Sohmer said.

"This is a mysterious thing that the trustees don't understand because it wasn't their problem when they were students," he said. "They were good students."

Herman Badillo, a university trustee who for years has advocated tougher standards, shrugged off this argument and said students who are academically driven will thrive.

Of the Vietnamese valedictorian, he said, "Sounds to me like the guy had a lot of drive. I did. The fact is that if you come from a foreign country or from poverty and have a lot of drive, you're going to make it anyway."

William Helmreich, for 25 years a professor of sociology at City College, said he has noticed that, in the past few years, "we have better students."

Yet he does not trust the ability of the skills tests to discriminate among perennially weak students and those who have shortcomings that can be quickly ironed out with remediation.

"The problem is we haven't found a way of distinguishing between those who will do well in the end and those who won't," he said.

David Lavin, a professor of sociology at the university's Graduate Center who has studied the impact of the university's admissions policies, said half of all senior-college graduates at CUNY failed at least one or more skills tests, an indication that failing the test might not predict college failure.

"A lot of students start out with no clear idea of what they want to do and may find the overall climate of community colleges less intellectually stimulating," he said. "It leads to lower educational aspirations and more of an emphasis on vocational training."

This article was distributed by the New York Times News Service.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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