UDC: Does D.C. Really Need A 4-Year College?
The University of the District of Columbia's energetic new president, Allen Sessoms, is a breath of fresh air in an institution that has seen little but trouble for way too many years.
Sessoms, a physicist by training, wants to take a school that gets little respect--an educator of last resort for kids who manage to graduate from one of the worst public school systems in the country--and turn it into two colleges: A two-year community college for anyone with a high school diploma, and a more rigorous, four-year college with--for the first time in UDC's four decades--real admissions standards.
Sessoms got the usual D.C. treatment when he first proposed his big reform effort--a whirlwind of protests from students and politicians. (Sessoms was not Mayor Adrian Fenty's choice for the job.)
Now comes a trustee of the City University of New York to argue that Sessoms' plan is just the right medicine for UDC. Kathleen Pesile says ending open admissions would let UDC raise its game, giving its students a real education and liberating the institution from the onerous and inappropriate job of remediating the failures of the D.C. school system. For too long, UDC has been a high school--even a middle school--in disguise, with college professors scrambling to teach basic algebra and even some arithmetic, as well as reading comprehension and other foundational lessons to students who were simply passed through the D.C. public schools.
Like Sessoms, Pesile believes that if UDC could have a separate community college to deal with the needed remedial classes, the four-year college could compete effectively with state universities that provide a far better education. But here's the flaw in the current reform plan: UDC is not in any way analogous to the great state universities around the country.
--The District is just too small to be able to offer the breadth and depth of courses that a state university can provide.
--The existing subsidy program that allows D.C. residents to attend public universities all across the country at in-state tuition rates is a fabulous bargain and a grand opportunity for those students who do make it out of D.C. schools with a diploma and real skills. A four-year UDC is superfluous for those students.
--UDC is not New York's City University, which had a decades-long history as one of the top universities in the nation before its ill-fated experiment with open admissions began in the ferment of the 1960s. That meant that CUNY always had a world-class faculty, whereas UDC evolved from the D.C. Teachers College, the Federal City College and the Washington Technical Institute, none of which had nearly the level of faculty that any great state university system can boast of.
Sessoms is using as his guidebook a Brookings Institution report that says it's a crying shame that Washington lacks a community college--the District, it says, is the only major U.S. city without such an institution to train high school graduates for the many jobs that now require some college, but don't necessarily need a full, four-year immersion in a given major.
That's a superb point, and UDC is actually well-positioned to be that community college. What it does not need to be is what it has strained to become for nearly half a century, with no success: A four-year institution capable of competing for students who have options in all 50 states.
As some of UDC's more dynamic professors have shown recently, the college is ready and able to repair a good chunk of the damage wrought by the D.C. public schools. That's a big enough challenge, and no one else is out there ready or willing to take it on. UDC should embrace that task and take great pride in preparing students whom many had given up on for the region's job force and for four-year colleges all across the country.
By Marc Fisher |
April 7, 2009; 7:15 AM ET
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