Open Admissions 1970: The Audacious Experiment
by Rebecca Strauss - 1971
Nationwide comparatively little time is being devoted to anguishing over the philosophy of open admissions; attention, instead, is focused on its implementation and viability. Colleges and universities across the nation are sending investigators to see what is going on at CUNY. New York City may have more young people involved and the size of its educational arena may be larger, but no major city in the nation can remain untouched by either the issues or the proposed solutions which are lumped under the rubric of Open Admissions.
My grandmother, that rigorous combination of Victorian rectitude and Dresden efficiency, regarded her grandchildren's generation with dismay. We lacked, in her eyes, the essential ingredient for success—what she called, in her version of American slang, "the have to." We had it too easy, the pressure to achieve was too inconsistent, we had no wall at our backs to make us struggle with the determination born of no alternative. This lack of brutal necessity, in her view, could only produce a state of vitiated accomplishment, a diffusion of purpose, a lack of commitment.
While her perspective has more in common with a Hobbes-like view of mankind than seems palatable to many of us, the "have to" has served as a mighty spur for many an individual effort and many a group response. In this category I think it safe to include the extraordinary educational revolution known as the Open Admissions Program (OAP) of the City University of New York.
The situation in New York since the spring of 1969 bears recalling. Everywhere young people were protesting the world in which they found themselves. The ills of society, so frustratingly complex and intangible, had become crystallized for the college population in the malfunction of their immediate environment—the college campus. No metropolitan institution of higher learning entirely escaped the turmoil, and no system was harder hit than CUNY. CUNY, with its far-flung alliance of community colleges, senior colleges, and a graduate center, reflects within its own walls, and in the geographic location of its many campuses, all the irritations and tensions of the current scene.
While the very size of CUNY made it an obvious target for dissidence and dissatisfaction, the role of CUNY as the only metropolitan institution of public higher education gave it a public responsibility unfelt by the private sector. CUNY, in short, was faced by the need for a fundamental revision of its educational design or the prospect of continued agitation and possible destruction-Whatever moral, legal, or intellectual rationale exists for Open Admissions— and there is much—the "have to" was certainly the catalyst.
Accelerating the Goals The Board of Higher Education, which serves as the board of trustees to the entire university (nineteen colleges -- two to open in September, a graduate center, a medical school, 170,000 students), responded to the unrest with an historic educational mandate. In July, 1969, the Board announced its intention to accelerate the educational goals it had posited in the Master Plan for 1975: to initiate Open Admissions five years earlier, thus promising to every June, 1970, high school graduate admission to CUNY in September, 1970. The Board declared its decision to be a matter of "educational desirability, social equity and economic necessity."
With less than a year lead-off time, the gigantic bureaucratic conglomerate known as CUNY creaked and groaned and whirled itself into the fulfillment of the dream. The doors opened in September, 1970, to 35,000 freshmen, approximately a quarter of whom would not have been there but for the change in admissions policy, to a greatly enlarged faculty operating in new and expanded facilities—and with collective fingers crossed.
Historical Notes Because historic memory is short, it is helpful to recall that in a curious way 1970 became the logical fulfillment of the 1847 conviction of Townsend Harris, president of the New York City Board of Education, "to open the doors to all—let the children of the rich and poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect." His plan to create a free academy of higher education was realized in May, 1847. In a city wide referendum the voters—19,305 for and 3,409 against, with a clear majority in every ward-adopted a law "creating an institution of higher education open to all without regard to race, creed or financial ability."
Thus began City College of New York in 1849 with 143 students. Dr. Horace Webster, its first president, addressed the student body, defining the task as follows: "The experiment is to be tried whether the highest education can be given to the masses; whether the children of the whole people can be educated; and whether an institution of learning, of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will; not by the privileged few, but by the privileged many."
The year 1849 speaks to 1970 in the most uncompromising terms; the mandate is the same: to educate all the young people who seek higher education —in nineteenth century parlance—"the privileged many." That the opportunity so created was indeed seized by the young people of the City is borne out by the history of CUNY which spans 121 years and reflects in microcosm the very growth of the City itself. For each new wave of immigrants, free public higher education was the high road up and out; up from the impoverished class, out from the ghetto, into the mainstream of American life.
The admissions policy of the colleges which finally came to comprise the City University often reflected economic conditions rather than educational convictions. Cutoff points (grades below which high school graduates could not be admitted) fluctuated due to size and cost limitations from the era of 1900-1920, when all high school graduates were automatically admitted, to 1960 when an 87 percent high school average was used in the four senior colleges. In all the commotion about Open Admissions, it is interesting that a little over a hundred years ago the following prerequisites were set for college admission:
No student can be admitted to the college unless he resides in the City, be fourteen years of age, have attended the Common Schools in the City twelve months and pass a good examination in: spelling, reading, writing, English grammar, arithmetic, algebra, geography, history of the United States, elementary bookkeeping.
The 1970 plan for Open Admissions contains new elements unprecedented in CUNY's own history or the history of the state universities where the idea of admitting all high school graduates to higher education has been part of the American educational scene for a long time. Of new critical significance are a policy under-girded by free tuition; a change in grading and course work that enables a student to succeed at a slower pace with remedial and compensatory services to help him achieve; a commitment that the "revolving door" technique of "take them in and fail them out" will not be used either overtly or covertly; an extended system of counseling designed to anticipate and help solve personal and academic difficulties for a very new kind of college population; and finally, a firm determination that there shall be no dilution of the educational experience—that the diploma must have integrity and that the University must also continue to attract and educate the well-prepared and proven able.
Recruitment Curiously enough, the first major hurdle in the Open Admissions Program was the recruitment of students. It is perhaps the most savage comment on the City high schools that the majority of students—and these were, after all, those who had shown enough fortitude to complete high school—had no hope of higher education; the whole idea of college rarely entered their thinking or the thinking of their teachers or advisors. And so, despite the enormous financial and educational opportunity offered by CUNY, it was necessary to go to the students, their parents, the schools, social agencies and organizations to spread the word. Over and over the admissions office had to state that CUNY meant open admissions, believed in it, and would support it. A distrustful, angry generation had to be persuaded that there was an alternative to violence and hopelessness.
While recruitment was certainly not totally effective and while the old spectre of high school counselor ineptitude, indifference, or downright discrimination continued to haunt too many places, and while student ignorance about this new opportunity remained in some areas, it is nevertheless a real measure of success that 55,000 applications were completed and places offered.
Of the 35,000 students who accepted and actually registered, 80 percent received their first choice of college and/or program of study—a tremendous tribute to the skill of the admissions staff backed by the sophisticated computer operation of the University. To show in some detail how the high school record and rank were used, the following is excerpted from the admissions application form for 1970:
CHOOSING A COLLEGE IN CUNY
The final step in completing your application is to select the six colleges or programs for which you wish to apply.
Under the new admissions policy of the University, applicants will be considered for their choices on the basis of either their high school academic average, or their rank in their high school class. Using these two factors, ten admissions groups have been established as shown in the chart below:
All applicants will be placed in the highest group for which they are eligible. For example, if your high school rank places you in Group 4 (fourth tenth of your class) but your high school academic average is in Group 2 (88 percent average) you will be placed in Group 2 for admissions purposes.
All applicants meeting the admissions criteria of high school diploma, residence, and health will be offered admission to the University. Students in the higher admissions groups will be more likely to be admitted to their first-choice senior or community colleges and programs than students in the remaining admissions groups. Applicants in Groups 1, 2, and 3 are most likely to be admitted to their first-choice college and program. Applicants in Groups 4 and 5 are most likely to be admitted to a senior college program, if they wish, although not necessarily the college of their first choice. Applicants in Groups 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 may be admitted to senior college programs if space is available, but are more likely to be admitted to a community college transfer or career program. Because many students in Groups 6 through 10 may not be admitted to senior colleges, students in these groups are advised to include community college programs among their six choices of college and program.
The University will offer their first choice of college to as many students as possible. Additional students will be placed in the program of their choice, even if their college choice cannot be honored.
While admissions financing and space location are administered centrally by CUNY, educational decisions are primarily made by each faculty for its own campus. There is certainly much exchange of views and considerable central office guidance, but the colleges maintain decided educational autonomy. Each of the colleges involved in Open Admissions devised its own plan for handling both the new style of student and the vast increase in the actual numbers of the entering class.
These plans varied considerably as to sophistication, experience, and even determination to succeed. The central office served as a task force to counsel, encourage, and demand an Open Admissions blueprint, but the implementation of its style was a reflection of the thinking and commitment (or lack) of the faculty and administration of each college. Most of the colleges have had the advantage of pilot programs to educate high risk students and have acquired much critical experience. In the senior colleges, the SEEK (Search for Education Elevation and Knowledge) program and in the community college, the College Discovery programs, have been in existence long enough to play a significant role in the design and operation of Open Admissions. The colleges where these programs have been most successful appear, at least initially, to have accepted and planned for Open Admissions most skillfully. Only time will tell if good implementation is also an outcome of the influence of these pilot programs.
Underway, from the very start of the programs last fall, has been an independent, privately funded, massive evaluation study. There is a clear and sensitive understanding on the part of the University that the findings, good or bad, are critical not only to the University itself but to higher education across the nation. No measurements are yet available, but constant self-examination proceeds at each campus with continuous exchange with the central staff over potential or actual problems. Difficulties would have arisen even if the lead-off time for planning had been long, the money abundant, the space needs met generously and the faculty unanimous in good will and skill. Clearly none of the foregoing conditions existed.
What is clear already, however, is that a major university has had the audacity to try to interrupt the cycle of failure, hopelessness, and poverty among the young people of our City by providing a real chance to "go up and out." Laid to rest is the question of should University admission be opened to all high school graduates. What the University faces is how to make the opportunity work well for all who enter its doors.
The task that the University has set for itself is the task of society, for as the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Timothy Healy, wrote so eloquently in the Saturday Review a year ago: "In no sense can the University do the whole job, nor should it try. But what it can do is potent indeed. It can short-circuit the terrible rhythm of disappointment and rage that locks our inner-city youths out of productive careers, that robs them of a stake in their city, and that can create a new race of barbarians more terrible in their visitations than the Goths and Vandals because not only do they not care, but the whole sophisticated apparatus has taught them not to care."1
Few involved in the Open Admissions enterprise have illusions of total success. Educated guesses on probable attrition range widely because no one knows all the factors, personal, educational, or societal, that might contribute to failure or to success. By September, 1971, we will be in a better position to begin to assess what has happened and to make recommendations and changes. Today there is little talk of what is meant by "open" on the campuses or in the City. What started as a revolution has in a short time become, if not exactly commonplace, at least accepted.
Nationwide comparatively little time is being devoted to anguishing over the philosophy of open admissions; attention, instead, is focused on its implementation and viability. Colleges and universities across the nation are sending investigators to see what is going on at CUNY. New York City may have more young people involved and the size of its educational arena may be larger, but no major city in the nation can remain untouched by either the issues or the proposed solutions which are lumped under the rubric of Open Admissions. In the Victor Hugo sense, it is truly an "idea whose time has come."
1 Timothy Healy, "The Challenge of Open Admission: Will Every Man Destroy the University?" Saturday Review, December 20, 1969, pg. 54.