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Who Should Go to College?

City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College

by James Traub
Addison-Wesley/a William Patrick book, 371 pp., $25.00


In the history of American higher education, the City College of New York had a distinctive place. Excellence came easily to independent universities like Johns Hopkins and Stanford, which were well endowed from the start. Land-grant institutions drew support from their states’ middle classes, enabling Ann Arbor and Chapel Hill to become prominent centers of graduate study and research. City College had no such clientele. For over a century it charged no tuition, offering education to students who otherwise could not have gone to college, and these students were able to meet high national standards. Harvard Law School saw the promise in a callow City College undergraduate named Felix Frankfurter. The school’s alumni included a generation of first-rate scholars, including eight Nobel Laureates.

But this golden age was relatively short, running roughly from 1920 until the graduation of the World War II GIS thirty years later. Throughout this period its enrollment consisted largely of the children of Jewish immigrants. While supported by public funds, it was allowed to be selective; applicants had to come from high schools with rigorous academic programs and stand in the top quarter of their class. It was a true subway school, attracting impecunious students from every New York borough. Even those who could pay tuition elsewhere faced concealed quotas, limiting the numbers of Jews, among others. Without doubt, the City College of this era was a remarkable success, a social experiment that had a broad and lasting impact.

Its gothic campus is still where it was in upper Manhattan, where Harlem meets Washington Heights. But it is now a very different place, with a new wave of students and a changed approach to its mission. The contrast between then and now is the burden of James Traub’s City on a Hill. A diligent journalist, Traub made many visits to the campus, where he sat in on classes and got to know undergraduates and professors. At first his accounts come across as affecting and sympathetic. Students found in him a confidant, and we get close to young people with such names as Abukar and Hyunsun and Fernando. Traub quotes the students’ own accounts of their lives and aspirations, and he describes how they look and how they behave in class. These portraits make up the best part of the book.

Yet as Traub proceeds, his tone turns adversarial, challenging the current mandate of the college and the capacities of its students. Indeed, it soon emerges that he wants to raise a broader issue: whether, at City College and elsewhere, we are allowing too many young Americans to embark on higher education.

In some respects, today’s City students are similar to their predecessors. Most live on meager budgets, and a subway school may be their only chance for a bachelor’s degree. Many are single parents, work at several jobs, or have only recently arrived in this country. But the ethnic composition of the school is today altogether different from what it was. The most recent count, for 1992, found the student body to be 39 percent black, 28 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian, and 14 percent white. And these figures tell only part of the story, since fully half were born abroad. As often as not, black students are Dominican or Haitian, while the “white” students may be from former Soviet republics or the Middle East. Asian students, a growing group, tend to be enrolled in the well-regarded engineering program, which keeps its distance from the rest of the college. According to Traub, three quarters of all freshmen have to enroll in at least one remedial program. Among the foreign-born entrants, more than half need special classes in English in order to understand what is going on in their regular courses.

All this remedial work has been necessary since the advent of “open admissions.” This policy, adopted in 1970, assures a place to anyone who can produce a high school diploma. Even with a low annual tuition of $2,450, many students apply for and receive financial assistance. (New York’s Governor Pataki has proposed raising the cost to $3,450, with no increase in scholarship funding.) In practice, City College is not fully “open,” since it admits about three quarters of its applicants, directing the rest to local two-year institutions which grant an “associate” degree. Still, the working premise is that if students arrive with deficiencies, these can be overcome with one or two semesters of intensive instruction, enabling an early transfer to the regular curriculum. To find out whether this faith can be translated into fact, Traub devotes much of his attention to remedial and introductory classes.

In a “College Skills” course, we watch a professor striving to teach basic skills that should have been acquired several years earlier. At the opening session, he holds up a headline from the campus newspaper: “Student Turnout Nil at Games.” Only one student can decipher it, and his rendering is, “No one didn’t go.” While all had completed high school, many had never read an entire book, written more than simple paragraphs, or learned to take notes. Few seemed able to make the kinds of connections expected in dealing with college work. “There’s a lot of daydreaming,” the instructor told Traub. “A lot of these kids don’t really think.” In a “World Humanities” class, which was not a remedial course, a student confessed she could only make out the plot of Macbeth by watching it enacted on a video.

Students choose to attend City College, so we might presume they want what it has to offer. Yet in “Language Arts,” the instructor we meet had to battle apathy and indifference, even passive resistance. “Lessons were forgotten from one day to the next,” Traub reports. “Homework assignments went undone.” Also among the missing skills is an ability to write coherent sentences. Students were asked to put on paper what they remembered most about their high school commencements. The following extract, Traub tells us, is a fair sample of the work that was handed in:

The graduation had almost about everything but it had to go on a scedual. It had marching down the isliles, singing the school almata, which I never heard before, and the color guards.

Clearly, students like these are not ready to begin the first year of a baccalaureate program, which leads to the question of why they are even on a college campus. And if they are not ready, it is legitimate to ask what went on—or failed to happen—earlier in their education. Unfortunately, Traub did not visit any of the New York high schools that send students to City College. Perhaps he felt no need to, since by this time we have all heard about the deficiencies of inner-city classrooms. In fact, supporters of “open admissions” knew of these problems a quarter-century ago. But they argued that colleges had more sophisticated resources than high schools did for helping unprepared students improve their skills and knowledge. Here the title of City on a Hill can be taken literally: John Winthrop’s vision of a new beginning, applied to the urban scene.

Two thirds of City College’s undergraduates are black or Hispanic, and in some classes Traub attended, his and the instructor’s were the only white faces. On the whole, though, the book says little about relations between race and educational attainment. Latin and African origins, of themselves, are not the issue. Some of City’s most promising students are from countries like Ecuador or Ghana, where the schools are often more demanding than their American counterparts. The greatest failures are among students raised in nearby neighborhoods. And here the consequences of race are central.

Most black and Hispanic students from New York have spent most or all of their lives in sharply segregated settings, where they have very little exposure to the kinds of mental processes—quick and accurate reading, solving logical and mathematical problems—that will be expected of them at the college level. It makes no sense to call these skills “white,” since they are increasingly the norm throughout the developed world. Indeed, Asian teenagers commonly outscore whites on standardized tests. But far too many of City’s students come from schools whose students are almost all from poor black or Hispanic families.

Certainly these pupils are as inherently intelligent as any other youngsters, as virtually everyone will testify who has taught them in the elementary grades. But partly because of the racial uniformity of both the schools and their neighborhoods, the students have little hope they can compete successfully in the outside world or acquire the techniques with which to do so. Neither at home nor in their neighborhoods, moreover, do many of the students get the kind of encouragement they need for academic success. Thus far, schools that are all black or Hispanic have had great difficulty preparing their pupils for the kinds of tests they will have to pass if they wish to travel outside familiar territory. Traub concludes that even immigrant students move more easily throughout the city than those from inner-city neighborhoods, and know more about the larger world.

Traub devotes the greater part of a chapter to Leonard Jeffries, City College’s best-known faculty member. Jeffries’s notoriety is ironic, since few people who have heard of him can name a single professor at Dartmouth or Stanford. Traub describes one of Jeffries’s classes in which much of the lecture was spent commenting on Traub’s own presence in the room. Still, Jeffries found time for a rambling harangue, with barbed assertions about the Jews financing the slave trade, about the superiority of dark “sun people” to white “ice people,” and about, predictably, the “Jewish-controlled media.”

He talked about Hollywood, and the old racial stereotypes in the movies. He said, “This is the institutionalization of racism that the Jewish community is largely responsible for!” Now, for the first time, Jeffries was shouting. He talked about sun people and ice people. And then he came back to the Jews, the Jews who had run City College and had opposed open admissions. “We’ve never been given anything by the Jews!” Jeffries shouted [italics in original].

Jeffries is an obvious embarrassment to the college. He has long maintained his post as chairman of its Black Studies program, partly by playing on the guilt of white faculty members about the general failure to do more to help blacks and partly on the fear of reactions from black students if Jeffries were to be seen as a victim. Few other colleges with black studies programs have had to deal with teachers who have Jeffries’s gifts for demagogy and few are as sensitively located. At one point, Jeffries warned that were any attempt made to curb him, “all Harlem would rise.” But following a recent Supreme Court ruling that largely excludes administrative jobs from protection on grounds of free speech, it now looks as if he will lose his chairmanship, although his tenure as professor seems secure. In fact, Traub found that Jeffries gets less attention on the campus than outside. In a typical semester, fewer than 750 undergradutes out of 11,500 enroll in his department, and most study not with Jeffries but with other professors, including scholars from Kenya, Haiti, and Nigeria. (Some thirty to forty students attended the course with Jeffries that Traub observed.)

Clearly Leonard Jeffries enjoys attention and knows how to get it. Were he to remark that many Presbyterians owned slaves, he knows there would be no response. His statements suggest he is not simply anti-Semitic but is also fascinated by Jews and envious of their accomplishments.1 Indeed, he boasts of having belonged to a Jewish fraternity as an undergraduate. Both Traub’s book and other accounts suggest that only a small number of students subscribe to Jeffries’s specific ideas, but that more than a few have been impressed by his defiance of administrative authority. For some students frustrated by academic assignments for which they are not prepared, Jeffries offers a flamboyant challenge to the prevailing structure of learning. My own talks with students suggest that most who take or know about his courses are aware that what happens in his classroom is not real education, although few would say this to whites.

In view of the classes Traub chose to cover, one can understand his overall assessment of City College as “a new model for higher education: the remedial college.” He is right that a large if not excessive share of the school’s resources is devoted to elementary instruction; but he might have made it clearer that unprepared freshmen make up only part of the total enrollment and that classes in the traditional liberal arts departments can be rigorous and demanding. Toward the end of the book, Traub describes a course in literary theory, with assignments on Barthes, Derrida, and Lacan, in which students spoke knowledgeably of semiotics, signifiers, and synchrony. In a seminar he attended, he was impressed by the cogency with which undergraduates analyzed the ideas of Wittgenstein. Still, he came away concluding that these students were “a tiny elite … isolated from the rest of the college.” He also notes that most were white and that several had transferred from other schools with advanced status.

Similar standards prevail in the architecture and engineering departments, which attract students who can meet them, but those who succeed are disproportionately foreign-born. At issue is how many who start in what Traub calls “the remedial underworld” will emerge with the sophistication to understand science, Shakespeare, and Wittgenstein.2 He concludes that very few do, and he doubts it is worth admitting so many students who cannot spell “schedule” in hopes that a few will make suprising progress.


It will be unfortunate if Traub’s conclusions are indiscriminately applied to other colleges. In fact, “open admissions” was not invented at City College, nor is it a recent creation. For many years, land-grant schools accepted all applicants. The famous biologist Edward O. Wilson got such a start at the University of Alabama. Today, some state campuses are quite selective. Berkeley takes in only 42 percent of all those who apply, while at Chapel Hill the acceptance rate is 40 percent. The comparable figures for Harvard and Stanford are 16 percent and 22 percent. However, most of those rejected by Berkeley can attend Santa Barbara, which accepts 85 percent, and the Greensboro campus in North Carolina lets in 80 percent. Even more “open” is the 95 percent rate at Oklahoma State University and 97 percent for the University of Oregon’s Portland campus.

If state schools like these verge on universal acceptance, it is also true that few of them draw chiefly on students from inner cities. The students who arrive at state colleges with the least auspicious records tend to come from small towns or rural areas and they are overwhelmingly white. While many of them also need, and get, remedial work, they do not bring with them the cultural handicaps of students raised in Harlem and Washington Heights. Support for this conclusion is found in the Scholastic Assessment Test which, despite its many imperfections, still provides a rough measure of academic preparation. In 1993, approximately 14 percent of the 1,044,465 high school seniors who took the test came from families having incomes below $20,000. Among the white students in this presumably disadvantaged group, the average score was 872 out of a possible 1,600, while Hispanic students averaged 725 and the black figure was 693.

Obviously acceptance rates do not tell the whole story, since state colleges tend to draw on a varied pool of applicants. Yet the same holds for many well-regarded private colleges. Thus Reed College maintains its high reputation even though it admits 73 percent of those applying—as it happens, the same proportion as City College—as does Southern Methodist, which accepts 80 percent. It is also revealing that after the colleges have made their decisions the students make theirs. Even Amherst College gets fewer than half of those it accepts, while at the University of Chicago fewer than a third of those accepted actually turn up.

City College, moreover, is not even typical of other urban institutions. At Oregon’s Portland branch, for example, only 5 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. Even the students on state campuses in Milwaukee and St. Louis are largely white, since many of them are suburban commuters: fewer than 15 percent of their enrollments are black or Hispanic.

Along with admissions, a central concern should be the number of students who actually graduate, since that rate is related to how many are let in. At City College, even the elite engineering program loses half its entrants. A survey of the entire class that entered in 1984 found that only 3 percent had graduated four years later and only 28 percent did so by 1992, eight years after starting. Traub estimates that perhaps another 15 percent may finish at some other institution. He finds it “stunning” that over half of those who begin never receive a degree, and is disturbed that the rates are almost as high for the country as a whole. But here I would suggest that his distress is misplaced.

Nationwide, fewer than half of the candidates for the BA receive their degrees in the traditional four years. More than a quarter of all freshmen start as part-time students and accumulate their credits over an extended period. Many undergraduates request leaves of absence, sometimes for financial reasons or simply to take a break from studying, and then return later on. Twenty percent of Brown’s students do not graduate with their class, while a quarter at Stanford fall behind. At Reed College, fewer than half take a degree in four years. At two major state campuses, Ohio State and the University of Iowa, fewer than a quarter of the students finish in four years. At Oregon’s Portland branch, the figure falls to 6 percent. City College, with 3 percent, has the lowest proportions of four-year graduates, which is not surprising, since it has a higher proportion of inner-city students than most of the others on the list. In their talks with Traub, students often cite the demands of part-time or full-time jobs as the reason why they can’t fulfill the academic requirements of a traditional college education.

Anyone who has taught undergraduates knows that there is a huge amount of transferring. Many if not most of the students who leave Reed or Ohio State end up earning degrees elsewhere. In some cases, the hiatus is quite long. Each semester I teach at Queens College I have students, now in their thirties, who had dropped out of college a dozen years earlier. The registrar tells me that almost half of the bachelor’s degrees we award are to people who started elsewhere.

Nor, it should be added, has completing college ever been the universal norm. Approximately half of those who start college in the US do not finish. According to the latest census report, 24.2 percent of Americans aged 25 to 64 have at least a bachelor’s degree, while 25.1 percent list themselves as having had “some college.” Or, to use another measure, in recent years about 2.2 million freshmen have been enrolling each autumn, whereas some 1.1 million seniors graduate each spring.3 Of course, the proportion of students who graduate varies from college to college. The table below gives the ratios for several schools with “four-year” undergraduate programs. Were all students actually to graduate in four years, there would be 250 degrees for every 1,000 students. In fact, when a college approaches graduating this many students, it is often because it accepts many transfer students, who have already been admitted to a college and have proved themselves there, and hence are more likely to graduate.

It is not self-evident that those who leave college regard it as a failure or a cause for shame. Many never intended to go the full course, especially among those who chose two-year colleges. Others want to find out if going beyond high school was right for them. In America, if not elsewhere, higher education has never been an either-or affair; the 33 million adults who started but never finished college during the postwar years make up a large part of the middle class. Some have technical positions, others are in sales or fields like insurance and real estate. Their average earnings ($30,978) are closer to those of high school graduates ($23,978) than men and women with bachelor’s degrees ($40,367). But the gap is less wide than we might expect when we consider that a college diploma has become a credential that allows entry into most of the more desirable middle-class occupations.

Traub liked many of the remedial students he met, yet he ended up feeling that “they shouldn’t be admitted to City College,” because “their problems are too profound to be addressed in a college setting.” What, then, should be available to them if they want to continue their education? Some students wish they had been told they were not ready for college, or were being told now. Traditionally such students have had the alternative of enlisting in the military, or mastering a skill like air-conditioning maintenance or plumbing. Those who encourage students to make such choices argue that blue-collar jobs have their own satisfactions and, potentially, fairly high salaries and good benefits. One effect of expanding higher education has been to neglect training for occupations that supply needed services and require expert ability. Interestingly, such arguments for alternatives to college can be heard across the political spectrum. Liberals hope for an invigorated trade union movement, which can succeed only if there are increasing numbers of skilled workers. Conservatives, who believe that merit determines one’s status in society, would follow Edmund Burke in assigning less educable citizens to “their appointed place.”

Everyone can agree that students who want to go to college should have good preparatory courses in high school and this is obviously not the case with the many young people who are getting diplomas with eighth-grade reading levels. They cannot be sent back into classes for fourteen-year-olds but there are other possibilities. For many years, British schools have had an open-ended “sixth form,” which students are entitled to attend for as long as it takes them to complete university entrance requirements. Something similar is needed for many American students who want to take on a demanding college curriculum but aren’t ready to do so. Like Britain’s sixth forms, post-high school programs could be given a special status that would make them attractive to nineteen-year-olds. Nor, apart from its cost, is this an impractical proposal: there are plenty of teachers who would want to work with students eager to expand their knowledge and build up their skills.4

While Traub shows sympathy for immigrants, he argues that they should not be admitted to colleges until they have mastered English. Adjuncts to high schools might also provide parttime language instruction, as evening classes did in the past. My own Queens College is much like City College, in that students who have only recently arrived in America are to be found in many classes. Some have difficulty following what is going on, and a few even ask me not to call on them since they can’t express what they want to say. These young immigrants are here to stay, and their talents should be cultivated. Even now, they are providing a disproportionate share of our collegiate chess champions and Westinghouse science scholars.

Traub also suggests that more unprepared students could be assigned to two-year community colleges. This is already being done, including in New York City. At last count, there were 1,422 such schools, enrolling 5,723,203 students, most of whom have jobs and study part time, very often in the evening. Traub seems to endorse the theory that those who are not ready for a rigorous curriculum can spend their freshman and sophomore years in less demanding places, and those who show they are qualified could transfer to regular colleges. But in fact many of the students who currently attend two-year schools come for only a single course, which might be in car repair or how to survive a divorce. Others may be nurses or police officers who want some college credits on their records. While community colleges offer “associate” degrees, few of their students take them. The twenty-four largest of California’s two-year schools enrolled 494,322 students in 1992, but awarded only 18,680 associates’ diplomas. And of the 504,231 such degrees awarded nationally, only 154,594 were in the liberal arts.

Even so, some community colleges take liberal arts courses seriously, and many of their students respond to them. Berkeley, which is highly selective when screening its freshmen, makes a point of accepting as juniors students who have good records at two-year institutions. In the same spirit, Queens College welcomes transfers from Long Island’s community colleges. How much larger a role should be given to two-year schools depends on one’s feelings about how many of the 6,787,387 students now in our 2,190 four-year colleges should not be there. It is not hard, as Traub has shown, to identify City College students who should be doing something else. It would be interesting to know if he would also suggest corresponding cuts at Oklahoma State and the University of Iowa.

I am less optimistic than Traub about the odds of re-creating the “city on the hill.” City College’s current enrollment, even if many of its classes are remedial, can at least justify its large physical plant and tenured faculty. As Traub admits, raising its entrance standards would turn it into a much smaller college, with substantially higher costs per student. Even elite public universities now face unsympathetic legislatures and reduced appropriations. In some parts of the country they have already had to abolish programs and departments. And even if City College became an urban Amherst, it does not follow that a great many better-prepared students would go there in preference to colleges elsewhere. In contrast with students during the Golden Era of City College, smart high school seniors now have a lot of choices. But more should certainly be done to prepare students for work they too often cannot do. The British idea of an open sixth form, while it cannot be transferred mechanically to the US, still suggests the kind of reform that should be considered in New York.


Not Granted July 13, 1995

  1. 1

    See my essay, “Jewish Racism, Black Anti-Semitism,” in Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments (Delacorte, 1994), edited by Paul Berman.

  2. 2

    For a more hopeful view, see the letter by Juliet Floyd, the professor whose seminar Traub attended, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 1994.

  3. 3

    Educational Attainment in the United States (Bureau of the Census, May 1994); Digest of Education Statistics (National Center for Education Statistics, October 1994).

  4. 4

    One such program sends about thirty inner-city students to the Brandeis University campus, where they undergo a year of intensive instruction. It has had many successes, not least because it is highly selective and very expensive. See “60’s Program Lives On at Brandeis,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 20, 1995.

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