Become a Member

Join PSC
Fill 1
PSC Rally across the Brooklyn Bridge

Home » Clarion » 2024 » April 2024 » Is CUNY too centralized?

Is CUNY too centralized?

Student placement needs faculty inputBy LORRAINE COHEN

During my time at LaGuardia, I witnessed a dramatic decline in investment in public higher education. Mayor Eric Adams’s recent budget cuts to community colleges are just one example of this trend.

Lorraine Cohen at CUNY Board meeting

Lorraine Cohen, a veteran PSC activist, addresses the CUNY Board of Trustees. Photo credit: Erik McGregor

The governor’s desire to bring more students back to CUNY and SUNY is a commendable plan, but we must be able to serve students who do return. While the governor’s plan focuses on automatic admission for high-performing students, the reality is that most students who are admitted to CUNY need some form of remediation, as they are not fully prepared to do college-level work. With insufficient funding from the City and State, we cannot hope to keep students from dropping out once they arrive.

We know that money matters. ASAP students do well – they have free tuition, a laptop, money for transportation and more academic advisement. This type of support is needed for all students to excel.


I want to focus on the way in which the University administration’s development and implementation of an algorithm, or index, as it is called, raises issues regarding its efficacy in placing students once admitted. I also argue that the concentration of power in the Central CUNY administration has had adverse consequences. Remediation and English as a Second Language [ESL] have always been hot-button issues. The policy of CUNY Central has been to marginalize the faculty that teach these courses and the students who require them.

About eight years ago, the college replaced the ACT test with an algorithm for the purposes of placing students in community and senior colleges. The algorithm was based on multiple measures, in contrast to the ACT, which placed students based on how they scored on a single high-stakes test. Substituting the ACT with an algorithm, otherwise known as the Proficiency Index, began as a top-down measure. The then vice president at CUNY Central and his team designed and implemented these changes; faculty and department chairs in the areas of developmental education and ESL were given only a cursory opportunity to comment on or discuss their concerns. They had no say on the timing of its rollout, its scope or the methodology used to create the algorithm. There was no pilot program that would establish its superiority as an assessment and placement tool.

developmental education

Within a short time, the Proficiency Index was used for all applicants to CUNY. It is used for placement in senior and community colleges as well as placement in developmental courses and ESL in the community colleges. Since implementation, there have been issues. Yet the administration has not recognized and tried to work with faculty to fix the problems of inaccurate placement.

Currently, the University channels those who need remediation into classes labeled “continuing education.” The advantage is that students do not use up financial aid, but it must be recognized that inadequate funding plays a central role in moving students from academic departments to continuing education. Moreover, continuing education faculty are a lower-paid labor force; many of them are part-time, and they have less power and status than full-time and part-time faculty in the academic departments. One teacher of developmental mathematics has stated, “Developmental classes have mostly been farmed out to CUNY Start, Math Start, etc. so that colleges can avoid reporting low developmental passing rates.” If this is true, the educational needs of thousands of students are treated as a shameful secret, rather than an important part of education’s fundamental mission. This also hides problems at the Department of Education, because so many students are graduating unprepared.


The administration is not only controlling decisions at the macro level, but also at the micro level within each college. Faculty have told administration that there are a significant number of students who should have been placed in a different course than the one they were assigned by the index. Yet the central office has imposed inflexible rules regarding changing the placement of students.

Central administration has made a rule that if students are placed in a regular first-credit English class on the presumption that they do not need additional hours, faculty are not permitted to “level down” students and place them in a more intensive version of the course. In addition, faculty members have reported that some students need additional work with ESL faculty to perfect their language skills. Faculty have no power to place them in an ESL course, even though the students demonstrate a need for additional work in developing their English-language speaking, reading and writing.


Administration has not been willing to recognize and remedy financial aid issues that arise when moving students out of the hybrid ENC 101 to English 101. If students do move up based on their teacher’s recommendation, they lose three hours toward completion of a 12-credit full-time load. This move may compromise students’ ability to access financial aid. Faculty believe that a resolution of this problem is possible, but there has been no response by the administration.

The administration has said it is making minor adjustments to the index, but it has not reported to faculty what those adjustments are and how they will affect placement. What we have seen repeatedly both at the K–12 level and the college level is the refusal of management to be transparent, and to truly consult with faculty about decisions that affect the education of students and the working conditions of faculty. There is a lack of respect and trust in the teachers and faculty who have worked with students who require additional developmental work and ESL.

CUNY administrators would benefit enormously if they would hear directly from faculty who teach these courses. Moreover, CUNY should conduct its own research to discover whether their placements of students, through the algorithm, have been working at both senior and community colleges. As far as I know, there has been no internal research by CUNY on using this placement tool.


I close with a quote from an ESL professor who is a co-chair of her department. She identifies the problem and the belief system that devalues students who require ESL. “Some students who need ESL language skill-building are not identified by the algorithm. ESL is not treated as a legitimate program and is minimized at many campuses, when in fact, our students need language support to succeed at college and in their majors.”

Overcentralization of power and the lack of accountability and transparency are problems that need to be addressed if students are to be more successful and faculty are to feel as if they are being treated as the knowledgeable professionals that they are. While admitting high-performing students is a laudable goal, we must also look at the realities of which students come to CUNY. Many are high-performing, but a significant percentage need remedial support to succeed in college. CUNY does not have an enrollment problem. It has a staffing and retention problem. Retaining students means fixing and investing in the remedial system – not hiding its problems and pretending that only the most-prepared students come to CUNY.

Lorraine Cohen is a professor emeritus of sociology at LaGuardia Community College. A version of this was originally delivered before the City Council’s Higher Education Committee.

Published: March 27, 2024

Jump to Content
Attend a bargaining session