College for everybody

June 12, 1996|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has proposed a tax-credit plan to help pay for higher education because he thinks every American ought to have a chance for at least two years of college.

The idea has rekindled opposition from people who ask whether college education ought to be diluted to the point where everybody can get some of it.

A bold experiment began 26 years ago. The City University of New York. opened its doors to virtually all New York City high school graduates: to a four-year college for students averaging 80 or better, to a two-year community college with a 70 average. The number of minority freshmen entering CUNY immediately jumped from 1,700 to more than 8,000. White enrollment rose from fewer than 16,000 in 1969 to average almost 26,000 from 1970-72.

Critics contended that open admissions forced City University to lower its standards and failed to adequately educate students. But a new long-term study claims that the program has been more successful than anyone thought -- for both students and society.

More than half the open-admissions students in the first three years of the policy received bachelor's degrees that helped them go on to better-paying jobs than they otherwise would have gotten. During one year in the 1980s, graduates admitted under open admissions earned almost $67 million more than they would have without the program. Over their lifetimes, additional earnings were estimated at about $2 billion.

For a new book entitled ''Changing the Odds: Open Admission and the Life Chances of the Disadvantaged,'' Prof. David E. Lavin, a City University sociologist, and David Hyllegard, director of institutional research at Manhattan Community College, conducted in-depth studies of 35,000 open-admission students and followed up on about 5,000 of them 12 to 14 years later.

Working full-time

They found that, given time, more than half got bachelor's degrees and more than 5,000 eventually went on to get master's degrees or doctorates. These students, especially those from minority groups, were typically poorer than other City University students and often worked full-time while they went to college, so it took them longer to graduate. ''It is a monument to their persistence,'' says Professor Lavin.

Critics question the numbers reported and contend that City University was forced to lower its academic standards and provide massive remedial help. James Traub, author of an earlier book that looked at the difficulties encountered by some CUNY open-admission students, told the New York Times, ''What I found is that an enormous number of kids going through got a substandard education because their preparation was so poor that the college was forced to stoop to their level.''

While acknowledging that some students suffered from poor preparation and that much attention is now devoted to remedial classes, Messrs. Lavin and Hyllegard insist that the basic education is sound and a large number succeed. The researchers say that CUNY's standards and national standing have not deteriorated.

These new findings send an important message to those who want to cut support for public education, or who argue that we shouldn't waste resources or lower standards in an effort to educate ''low IQ'' youngsters.

As Professor Lavin observes, ''These [students] would be in significantly worse shape if it weren't for open admissions. Our data indicate that it provided opportunities that students used well, and that translated into direct benefits in the job market and clearly augmented the economic base.''

The nation cannot help but benefit if President Clinton's plan is embraced.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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