The Atlantic’s Hit Job on CUNY

Around a decade ago, the leaders of CUNY’s faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, denounced plans to eliminate remediation at CUNY senior colleges. (This move was part of a pattern in which the PSC opposed virtually every reform proposed by former chancellor Matthew Goldstein.) The move was elitist and harmful to students of color, the union leaders implied, and would undermine CUNY’s mission. In fact, the approach has been a spectacular success, ensuring that senior colleges had better-prepared students and giving students lacking college preparation a better chance to succeed at community colleges.

The same anti-meritocratic approach—coupled with a thinly-veiled element of racial politics, claiming a “race gulf” in CUNY admissions—animates an Atlantic article (“reported with support from the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute”) alleging that CUNY senior colleges, by placing too much emphasis on standardized tests, have harmed (certain types of) students of color. Yet much like Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely with alleged gang-rape victim “Jackie,” the Atlantic writers appear to have excessively trusted their source, blinded by a pre-existing ideological commitment to tell the story they wanted to tell.

While authors LynNell Hancock and Meredith Kolodner frame CUNY’s post-1999 renaissance in a negative light, they celebrate the open admissions era of the 1970s, which dramatically weakened standards, recovery from which took two decades. “The hotly contested open-admissions policy,” they write, “was a no-holds-barred effort [unnamed] sociologists later described as ‘arguably the most ambitious effort to create educational opportunity ever attempted in American higher education.’” The piece features several favorable quotes from advocates of lower (or euphemistically redefined) admissions standards, and the web version of the article prominently features a photo from protesters calling “for a return to open and affordable education at an Occupy CUNY rally in 2011.”

No SAT Score Given

The article’s tragic heroes are Kenneth Rosario, a “powerfully built Puerto Rican” Bronx student who mentioned by first or last name no fewer than 23 times; and Fran Portoviejo, who was “was raised within the tight circle of his Ecuadorean immigrant family” and gets mentioned eight times. (Rosario’s name also appears four times in the myriad corrections the Atlantic was forced to run on the piece.) Rosario, we are told, worked very hard in high school, had good grades and extra-curricular activities, and yearned for a career in business. But despite his impeccable credentials, he was rejected, apparently because of low SAT scores, by CUNY’s Baruch College,

Hunter College.
Hunter College.

which has an excellent business program; Hunter College also rejected him. (The authors do not reveal what Rosario’s SAT scores were, despite their obvious importance to the article, describing them only as “short of the average” of incoming first-year students at Baruch.) Disheartened by these rejections, Rosario turned to a career in electrical engineering. He spurned an admissions offer from CUNY’s City College (whose engineering program has a higher SAT average admissions level than Baruch’s) and headed off to NYU Polytechnic.

Alas, it appears that virtually everything the article relays about the aborted relationship between Rosario and CUNY is untrue. According to a statement from CUNY, Baruch and Hunter were not Rosario’s first two admissions choices among CUNY schools. His first choice was City College, which admitted him. (He declined.) His second choice, New York City Tech, admitted him. (He declined.) His third choice, Brooklyn, admitted him. (He declined.) His fourth choice, Lehman, admitted him. (He declined.) His fifth choice was Hunter, his sixth was Baruch. For an applicant who supposedly yearned for a career in business, listing Baruch as a sixth choice seems odd. (Perhaps that’s why Rosario listed computer information systems, not business, as his likely major at Baruch.) In the event, Hancock and Kolodner do not explain why Rosario’s life choices were so altered by not gaining admission to schools he had listed as his fifth and sixth preferences among CUNY colleges after CUNY had admitted him to his top four picks. It would seem that decisions made by the applicant—rather than CUNY’s admissions policies—accounted for Rosario’s choice not to attend CUNY.

Then there’s the case of Portoviejo. He was rejected by four CUNY schools—but, according to the authors, received promises of “generous financial aid packages” from such schools as “Marist, Bard, Muhlenberg, [and] Union.” But he elected not to attend them, citing a lack of confidence from the CUNY rejections. (Neither Hancock nor Kolodner seem interested in exploring the highly, highly unusual situation of a potential college student spurning generous financial aid packages from multiple schools because of other schools rejecting his application.) In any case, Portoviejo enrolled in an unnamed community college, worked hard, applied for transfer—and subsequently got accepted not only by CUNY’s Baruch but by NYU. This would seem to be a successstory, yet Hancock and Kolodner somehow spin it as a story of institutionalized racism. Facts, in short, appear to matter little to Hancock and Kolodner, who appear more intent on spinning personal vignettes into a pre-existing narrative.

 Asians Don’t Count

The piece has other odd presentation elements. Hancock and Kolodner accurately portray a central mission of CUNY as educating “promising children of single parents, new immigrants, the entrenched urban poor.” Given the current demographics in New York City, that qualification certainly would apply to Asian-American applicants—many of whom are first-generation or children of first-generation immigrants from China, Korea, Southeast Asia, or South Asia. Yet for Hancock and Kolodner, it appears as if Asian-Americans or Asian immigrants don’t count as fulfilling CUNY’s mission. CUNY’s senior colleges, they fume, “now favor a disproportionate number of Asian and white freshmen.” And the authors are outraged that “the racial skew became so pronounced that Baruch, the system’s business and science jewel, is now about 40 percent Asian.”

At the same time, and apparently without irony, Hancock and Kolodner cite the case of Rehanuma Islam, “a shy, willowy teenager” who recently arrived in the United States from Bangladesh. Islam didn’t get into Hunter or Baruch, allegedly because of poor SAT scores—a victim of CUNY’s punishingly high admissions standards. The Hancock/Kolodner thesis regarding Asian-Americans and immigrants, therefore, amounts to the following: students from this demographic who are rejected by CUNY illustrate the institutional racism in CUNY admissions standards. Students from this demographic who are accepted by CUNY illustrate the institutional racism in CUNY admissions standards. How convenient.

Then there’s the oddity of how, precisely, Hancock and Kolodner define top-tier CUNY schools. For purpose of their narrative, they allege that Baruch and Hunter are the elite CUNY senior colleges, followed by less prestigious ones (Queens, Brooklyn, and City). That approach allows them to frame the article’s subjects (Rosario, Islam) as rejected by “the system’s most coveted four-year colleges.”

It’s true that by one metric, Baruch and Hunter are “the system’s most coveted four-year colleges”—they have the two highest mean SAT scores for incoming first-year students. Yet the whole thrust of the Kolodner/Hancock article is that SAT scores are not predictive of academic excellence. By what appears to be the duo’s preferred metric, high school GPA, the system’s most elite schools are City College and then Baruch. So the SAT isn’t a useful level of analysis in anticipating whether a student like Rosario will do well in college—but it is a useful level of analysis in illustrating “the system’s most coveted four-year colleges.” I see.

Moreover, when it serves their purposes, Hancock and Kolodner include City, Brooklyn, and Queens with Baruch and Hunter as among the institution’s top-tier schools. But when CCNY and Brooklyn offered admission to Rosario, they transformed into “less-competitive schools in the CUNY system.”

The Atlantic should be embarrassed by this article. And the idea that CUNY should return to the failed policies of the past should outrage all New Yorkers.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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