Queens College has earned a national reputation. It was ranked eighth in the Princeton Review list of America’s Best Value Colleges and 10th in the U.S. News & World Report list of top public regional universities in the Northeast. In 2013 Washington Monthly ranked Queens College second among 1,540 US colleges as “best bang for the buck,” and in 2015 a study ranked Queens in “the top 1 percent of US colleges that move students from the bottom economic quintile to the top.” Queens College revels in and publicizes itself as being one of the most diverse colleges in the nation, reflected in a student body where over 140 nationalities and 85 languages are represented. The problem is that black students continue to be underrepresented in CUNY’s top-tier colleges, including Queens College.
In 1969 black and Latino students occupied City College of New York (CCNY). The attendant publicity brought to light the extent to which the doors to several CUNY colleges were closed to them. At CUNY’s five most selective senior colleges in 1967, the undergraduate student bodies were 89 percent white, 5 percent black and 3 percent Puerto Rican. At Queens College, the student body was 92 percent white, 4 percent black and .5 percent Puerto Rican.
The CUNY Board of Trustees hurriedly adopted a more expansive “open admissions” policy, guaranteeing New York students a seat in a community college and changing the admission requirements for senior colleges.
Between 1969 and 1972, the number of black students CUNY-wide leapfrogged from 16,529 to 44,031. Puerto Ricans increased from 4,723 to 13,563. At Queens College, the number of black students increased from 1,494 to 2,156.
Above all else, open admissions was about access, which has always been about admission standards. In 1999, the Schmidt Commission, appointed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, published its report “The City University of New York: An Institution Adrift,” which recommended that a critical goal for CUNY should be the cultivation of “flagship senior colleges” that could withstand comparison with the best public colleges across the nation. A major recommendation was to end all remedial education at the senior colleges and to outsource all remediation to the community colleges. The implementation of these recommendations, particularly that the SATs be required of freshman – but not transfer students – applying to senior colleges, resulted in what amounted to a front-door path and a side-door path for admission into senior colleges.
IMPACTING BLACK STUDENTS
The SAT requirement had a disparate impact on black students. Freshman enrollment of black students at Queens College fell from a high of 10.3 percent in 1990 to a low of 6.3 percent in 2014. In 2010, when admission standards were raised to their highest level, the ratio of applications to admissions was 1:10 for black applicants as compared to 1:2 for white applicants.
On the other hand, transfer enrollment at Queens College rose from 19 percent of its entering students in 1974 to 56 percent by 2014. The transfer path into the selective colleges – the side door – quickly became the predominant admission path for black and Latino students. At Queens College in 2014, 68 percent of its black students and 75 percent of its Latino students entered as transfer students.
What difference does it make if a student enters the college as a freshman or as a transfer student? The answer is a significant difference, according to the Foundation of Excellence study commissioned by Queens College in 2012. Compared to freshmen who enroll in their first semester, transfer students are deprived of academic communities. They have more limited access to faculty, fewer support services and experience more difficulty getting into needed courses.
What actions have been taken by Queens College over the years to address the gross underrepresentation of black students? There have been no studies centered on black students and no incentive packages like those developed for the Macaulay Honors College students. Queens College did hire a minority recruiter in 1986 and a director of minority affairs (yours truly) in 1993. Neither position had a budget. If there is any truth to the biblical precept that a man’s treasure is where his heart is, then one can only conclude that the heart of the college lies elsewhere.
LACK OF ACTION
Unlike past years, the 2017 Middle States Team Report to the Commission on Higher Education failed to provide any recommendation that would have required that the underrepresentation of black students be addressed by the next review. Nor did Queens College address the underrepresentation of black students in its recommendations for itself. Instead, in its conclusion the Middle States Report declared that “your diversity and the transformational impact you have on your students are your biggest assets.” Clearly, diversity no longer means what it historically has meant at CUNY.
How would the students in 1968 who stormed what they perceived as CCNY’s “shut doors” judge CUNY’s success at opening those doors in 2014? CUNY-wide they would see a huge increase in the percentage of black students (26 percent), a plummeting of white students (now 18 percent), and a sharp increase in the percentage of Asian, and other students of color.
A closer look would reveal that black students are concentrated in the “second” tier senior colleges (23 percent) versus (12 percent) in the first tier. On the other hand, they would observe that white students make up only 28 percent of students in the community colleges. Finally, they would observe that black and Latino students are most often admitted by the side entrance, and too frequently fail to be admitted into CUNY’s best institutions and programs because of supposedly race-neutral criteria. Surely they would protest the heavy reliance on SAT scores.
It is time to modify the admissions practices that have resulted in this underrepresentation of black and Latino students. It is time to put the lie to a diversity that is not inclusive of all. Is it time to sound the clarion again?