CUNY’s Pathway to Whatever

Peter Wood

City University of New York is moving forward with a controversial plan for a thirty-credit “common core.”  In part one of this post, “How Central is the Core?” I traced some of the general arguments in favor of undergraduate core curricula, but I also faulted the CUNY proposal as an instance where the imposition of a common core will actually lower academic standards. 

Some of the comments posted to “How Central is the Core?” anticipated points I intended to make in this follow-up. Let me borrow what has already been said. History professor Sandi Cooper, the chair of the University Faculty Senate, in particular, captures the distress of many CUNY faculty members as they contemplate the “common core.”  Professor Cooper has complaints about the process:

As chair of the University Faculty Senate — a body chartered by the Trustees — to deal with cross campus curricula issues, I can state clearly that the process by which this core was developed did not reflect any campus or university wide elections and involvement of faculty with experience in general education.  Our General Education committee which was wrestling with a proposal to improve transfer and preserve much of what was good in general education was ignored in the process of developing this common core. The process was driven entirely by a Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.

But also with the outcomes:

Carefully constructed general education programs in the senior and  community colleges are overturned.  In the seniors, credits range from 45-60 depending on student competencies and most have at least a year of lab science, a history requirement, one to two years of foreign languages and classes in literature.  Choices in other fields are not scattered over 8-10 disciplines and interdisciplinary ideas — ethnic studies, e.g.  This includes Brooklyn’s famous core which probably will survive by dropping languages.  We all fear for languages and philosophy.

She notes the disapproving judgments of various observers:

The MLA, national Phi Beta Kappa and a plethora of faculty senate resolutions weighed in before this process was launched with criticisms and alternate proposals — all ignored.

And she evokes the political considerations that appear to have prompted the proposal:

It is political when you realize that most CUNY students arrive with severe deficits (two thirds of NYC high school grads need remediation) and for most of us, this new core represents little more than an effort to insure that more students get degrees by a far less challenging curricula.

Let me add that I have no direct connection to CUNY, and while I sympathize with CUNY faculty members and students who are likely to see a diminishment of the university educational programs, my focus is on CUNY’s “common core” as the embodiment of a larger ominous trend:  lowering academic standards in the hope of increasing enrollment.

In this case, CUNY is relaxing academic standards in the hope of streamlining the path to graduation. The core curriculum is the key part of a reform called “Pathways to Degree Completion” or the “Pathways Initiative.” The pathways in questions are shortcuts meant to hustle underprepared students through the graduation requirements of the four-year baccalaureate programs. The unprepared students come in two varieties: students transferring into the senior CUNY colleges from the CUNY junior colleges, and students who have entered CUNY’s senior colleges directly from New York City high schools.

The junior-college transfer students loom larger in this proposal, but the  NYC students entering directly into the four-year institutions are an important factor too.  NYC schools have been through a period of wildly inflated test scores and other forms of academic inflation that have left the traditional pool from which CUNY draws its enrollment poorly prepared for college.   Beyond the charmed circle of Brooklyn, Queens, City, Hunter and Baruch, which maintain relatively high admissions standards, the CUNY colleges must deal with cohorts of students almost as ill-prepared as those who begin in the  community colleges.  CUNY has an open admissions policy based on the notion  that any graduate of a New York City high school would be ready for college.  Unfortunately the current NYC high-school diploma means no such thing.

The other problem faced by CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein is that the academic standards at the four-year colleges often prove very challenging for the junior-college transferees. Their college credits may be transferable, but often the students’ transcripts do not match up with the general-education requirements of the senior colleges. Some of the transferees flounder and fail to graduate; others stick it out, but it often takes them much longer to complete degree requirements.

All parties seem to agree that something should be done to make transfer from junior to senior college more successful.  Professor Cooper again:

We are NOT opposed to a smooth transfer process and we supported a variety of approaches — resembling what SUNY and CAL State achieved.

David Gordon, chairman of the New York affiliate of the National Association of Scholars, says pretty much the same thing:

The notion of a seamless transfer between junior and senior colleges is supported by almost everyone.  It is the means used to achieve this that is so bad.

The problem, at bottom, is that the CUNY administration has decided that rather than improve the preparation of the junior-college students, they will drastically simplify and lower graduation requirements.

I hesitate to explain this in detail, as it would require both a lengthy essay on my part and a willingness to delve into detail on the part of the reader. But the details of the plan are readily available on CUNY’s Web site. This page is a good place to begin. By way of short summary, however:

  1. The new core allows for 30 credits to be earned at community colleges, and 42 at senior colleges.
  2. Fifteen credits are mandatory for all students in all colleges, including 3 credits in the hard sciences. That effectively eliminates laboratory science as a graduation requirement for all but science majors.
  3. Fifteen of the 30 community-college credits and 27 of the 42 senior-college credits have been divided into five categories each containing a choice of courses. This is the usual distribution-requirement approach, which allows a university to pretend to have a coherent curriculum while requiring nothing in particular.
  4. Students at the community colleges who transfer to the senior colleges before graduating with an A.A. or A.S. degree may now also transfer all of their community college credits in the core to the senior colleges. Up to this point, the senior colleges have been able to review these credits and deny those that are not a match. In the new system,  even courses completed with a grade of D- must now be accepted at the senior level.

The Pathways Initiative, as far-reaching as it is, is not the whole of CUNY’s response to the problem of having to absorb large numbers of unprepared students.  For instance, there is also considerable pressure on faculty members to inflate grades.  Why?  New York State requires students to have a 2.0 GPA  by their fourth semester to continue to receive state  financial aid.  This means a student who gets D’s is in danger of losing his aid, which in turn has led to informal pressure on faculty members to award D students higher grades.

Faculty members who advise students have also been strongly encouraged to keep them strictly on program maps and to discourage the sorts of intellectual exploration that have been a central feature of CUNY-style college education until recently.

If I have misunderstood any of this, I am sure some who have studied it more closely will correct me in the comments.

Is what really lies behind this the willingness of the CUNY administration to lower academic standards and risk the reputation of all of its senior colleges? I don’t have access to the inner deliberations of the CUNY administration, but it isn’t hard to frame plausible conjectures. I have two.

(1) CUNY is under considerable political pressure to increase graduation rates and decrease average time-to-degree-completion. President Obama has spoken of the need to increase enrollments nationwide, and to increase graduation rates as part of that broader goal.  CUNY, which has a huge surplus of students, isn’t under pressure to admit more, but it is under pressure to improve graduation rates.  Nationwide,  numerous advocacy groups have clamored for steps to expedite college students to their degrees.  Crowded into this demand for increased graduation rates are several distinct lines of argument. America’s national competiveness, it is said, depends on our achieving a higher percentage of the population holding college degrees. Socio-economic inequality, it is said, can only be dismantled via a faster-track approach to college-degree attainment. We waste resources, it is said, if we support the college costs with public funds but allow a high percentage of students to drift away from college without attaining a degree.

I am skeptical about this movement to increase graduation rates. That movement is, I think, a consequence of our nation over-selling the idea of a college education and our failure to develop alternative pathways to success for young people.   From this perspective, CUNY’s decision to undermine its current academic standards in the hope of easing more and more students along the “pathway” to a college degree is futile and self-defeating.   More degrees coupled with less education won’t help the graduates—talented or otherwise—and it certainly won’t help the university, which ultimately depends on the currency of prestige.  If the public ceases to believe that a university degree approximately indicates an educated person, the university will be less and less able to command public support.

In that sense, the Pathways Initiative appears to be a bid for political popularity in the short term at the expense of long-term viability.

(2) CUNY’s common core is probably driven to some degree by financial calculations.  New York State, as I understand it, now balks at paying for college credits beyond those required for a degree. The bureaucratic answer seems self-evident:  make every credit count for the degree, regardless of whether it reflects marginal attainment (the D-) or is off-topic.  Other financial considerations may pertain as well.  This sort of “common core” can marginalize some academic departments, which can be allowed to fade away and out of the budget.  And streamlining students from community college through senior college potentially saves a great deal on instructional costs.

I wouldn’t want to depict CUNY’s actions as necessarily cynical. One doesn’t have to spend a great deal of time among educrats to see that many of them are well meaning. In this case, I imagined they see themselves as champions of students who have few financial resources and numerous social obstacles. Making it easier for such students to attain college degrees must seem like a noble undertaking. And the disapproval of faculty members only underscores that the students need such champions.

CUNY’s new “common core,” however, will have very few benefits. It begins with the misappropriation of the  idea of a common-core curriculum and ends with the misery of shortchanged college graduates. Because it is large and well known, CUNY is a spectacular instance of this particular swindle.  But CUNY is far from alone in its willingness to speed larger cohorts of under-qualified students to a college degree. The students would generally benefit from a real core curriculum, but that would mean setting the sorts of standards at which some would fall short and might not even surmount on repeated tries.

Nations that encourage colleges and universities to set such standards gain the benefits—economically and socially— of a genuinely educated populace. But those that indulge in academic gimmickry to pump up the numbers are likely to be victims of their vanity. CUNY’s “common core” is a map to a destination that American higher education should be at pains to avoid.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on December 18, 2011.

Photo: Marcus Puschmann

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