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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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I agree at least 85% with Pesile. Sessoms' idea to separate the community college/open access stream from the four-year-college stream is excellent because it recognizes the legitimacy of both missions. But Pesile is right that there are a great many obstacles to creating the four-year-college. If Congress is willing to underwrite a strong four year college, well and good. But the CC model is closer to success and more in keeping with the actual successes that UDC has had in individual lives.

Posted by: drrico | April 7, 2009 8:46 AM

DC already has several 4-year colleges: Georgetown, GW, Catholic, Southeastern, Howard.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | April 7, 2009 8:51 AM

Sounds great, but you know that every time the bar is lowered, someone trips on it.

Posted by: signof4 | April 7, 2009 8:54 AM

1. I know Fisher didn't mean to extrapolate to the nth degree but the only difference between UMD and MoCo Community Colleges is the latter stops at two years. They're that good. Sure there is 'remediation' occuring but largely folks want to be there and want to move up. So, you might want to keep the bar where it is.

2. Maybe time is better spend revisiting the idea of returning DC to MD. You can have federal territory just like you do now in places like the military bases and federal parks that criss cross MD. All to say combine community colleges, open UMD to DC kids at in state rates .. blah blah. Of course, you could do that now .. if a certain state and district wanted to.

Posted by: tslats | April 7, 2009 9:04 AM

Why create new infrastructure? Wouldn't it be better to leverage somebody else's success?

Maybe the district could take some abandoned office buildings or warehouses, renovate them and then ask NoVaCoCo or MoCoCoCo to extend their existing programs into DC.

Or, maybe UDC could just start offering two-year degrees along with four-year degrees. That way, UDC wouldn't need to fragment at all.

Posted by: JoStalin | April 7, 2009 9:27 AM

I support a two school system with a CC and a four year institution. Washington, DC needs a competent public institution that can meet the needs of educating its residents. This is the NAT CAP for goodness sakes and should be a model of public education from Pre-K to PhD. Georgetown, GW, Catholic, Southeastern, and Howard are all private schools with sky high tuition. I do believe that Dr. Sessoms has a plan in place to lead UDC to viability. DC should back this plan (w/some revisions)and make this investment. UDC has been underfunded for decades and it's wrong to blame them solely for their current state of despair.

I am a recipient of the DC Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) that has allowed so many DC graduates to attend out of state public colleges at near in state prices. While it's a great program...DC needs an option for resident to receive a quality education at home. We shouldn't rely on outsourcing of our public educational needs. What happens if the federal gov't decides to no longer fund DC TAG 10-15 years from now?

Posted by: Gwave44 | April 7, 2009 9:28 AM

UDC being a 4 year school should not be a problem, but they need to give up the poor quality graduate programs and all the silliness that goes along with being a land-grant school like the agriculture program.

Posted by: buffysummers | April 7, 2009 9:34 AM

Marc, overall, your point is correct, although one of your reasons is wrong. D.C. is not too small to have a four-year university. The population of D.C. is larger than that of Wyoming, which has a perfectly fine four-year public university.

Perhaps you could make the argument, though, that D.C.'s college-ready population isn't large enough. I could buy that.

Your second argument is much better. Why should D.C.'s college-ready students go to UDC when they can go to any state's public university at in-state tuition levels?

Posted by: rlalumiere | April 7, 2009 9:34 AM

You are so off base this time. First, you discount the fact that some students - despite TAG and LEAP - do not have the means to travel to school. Yes, UMD College Park is nearby, but many DC students do not qualify to enroll there. If UDC is not a 4 year college, many students will have no option.
Second, as someone who participated in the Brookings focus groups, I can tell you that Brookings does NOT recommend UDC starting a 2 year college. UDC should focus on its mission (which it currently horrifically fails at) and a FUNCTIONAL 2 community college should be created.
I work with graduating high school seniors from DC and I am really wondering if the time you spent at UDC writing your October article is representative of the overall university. I can tell you from my experience that nothing could be further from the truth.
The new president of UDC is scared that a functional community college will take funds from his dysfunctional university and his move to create a community college is nothing more than a power grab.

Posted by: BrentwoodGuy | April 7, 2009 9:47 AM

Your sweeping comments denouncing the need for a four-year UDC program seem strange, unsupported and needing of great leaps of reason. How can it be that the Nation's Capitol should not offer exceptional public education to its citizens, without relying upon the private sector? The University of the District of Columbia should be a shining example of what a quality 4-year education degree looks like. I do not agree that the District is too small for this purpose, and I think President Sessoms has the right idea. the residents of the District should be able to attend a quality public institution where they reside. The District deserves and is entitled to the best, not second or third. Division 1, here we come!

Posted by: DZPost | April 7, 2009 10:00 AM

One side effect is that veterans attending colleges in DC are getting the shaft because G.I. Bill benefits are pegged off of each state's highest public university tuition. For DC, that's UDC by default. And I don't think anyone can argue that UDC provides a good basis for calculating how much DC veterans should be getting from their GI Bill benefits.

Posted by: jw703 | April 7, 2009 10:25 AM

I am not one of those who use this forum to put down anyone- but of the 10 or so comments thus far, so MANY of you are missing the KEY point in Marc's column-
that the average UDC Freshman is reading, writing, and 'rithmaticking at the MIDDLE SCHOOL LEVEL. Of course there are exceptions, but that is exactly what they are, EXCEPTIONS!!
Sure, DC has a number of fine 4-yr colleges but do any of you folks honestly think that the average DC public school graduate can do university-level work?
I honestly dont mean to insult anyone but the last time I checked, Georgetown and GW were not offering Remedial English or Middle School Algebra.
I think the reason some of you are attacking Marc's column is that you are choosing the feel-good politically-correct idea of a "great DC Public institution" when you know that, going by classwork and abysmal graduation rates, UDC is already a Community collge.

Posted by: peabody2 | April 7, 2009 10:47 AM

Maybe we should just close UDC altogther and take that money to reduce class sizes and improve primary education in DC. We don't need a glorified junior high.

Posted by: forgetthis | April 7, 2009 10:48 AM

I must disagree with some of the points raised in your article Marc. As a resident of the District of Columbia who happens to attend UDC, I find it offensive for you to suggest that residents be content to train for jobs that require a 2 year degree opposed to seeking an education that will prepare then to build careers.

Posted by: Porsche2003 | April 7, 2009 10:55 AM

Agree with an earlier poster
DC already has several 4 year universities, widely regarded.
And UDC will never match any of them in my lifetime. It will never attract the great student that can go to American, Howard, Catholic, GW, G-town. Never.
A pipedream for those that thinks it can.

It is a community college already, with a university name. It has zero dorms thus attracts no one from anywhere outside of the DC region. Why not offically call it what its been for 30+ years. Washington, DC Community College and make it 2 years...

Posted by: kedavis | April 7, 2009 11:44 AM


You come up with the wrong answer because you asked the wrong question.

The question is not whether DC needs a four-year public university, but whether DC students need access to a four-year public university that is nearby.

They currently do not have it. While you are correct that TAG is a wonderful subsidy, it falls very short in three respects:

1. Its $10,000 annual cap does not fully close the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition at either UVA-Charlottesville or UMD-College Park.

2. TAG only covers tuition, and does not help with room and board, which can be thousands of dollars.

3. Perhaps most important, DC students are NOT entitled to be considered for admission to other state universities on an in-state basis. That means that all but the most exceptional DC students cannot realistically expect to be admitted to the nearby flagship schools.

Does this mean DC needs its own university? No. It does mean, however, completing the task that TAG began: full access, on in-state basis, to UVA, UMD, and possibly other state schools.

We keep hearing that we don't have representation in Congress because DC belongs to the entire nation. Here's an opportunity to prove it: Help us give our kids the college education that every other American kid has a shot at.

But is it necessary, or even desirable, to build that institution within the District? I would say that until the DC school population improves substantially, the creation of a quality local university will be nearly impossible, and the better option for our kids will be to educate them elsewhere. Because many will need to commute, that means making special arrangements with neighboring jurisdictions.

And by all means a quality two-year community college here in DC to prepare them. That idea has been around forever, but its only hope of passage is to pair it with a meaningful four-year option for our kids along the lines I have described.


Posted by: Meridian1 | April 7, 2009 12:47 PM

"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."

I agree that maybe a 2 yr community college is appropriate. However, as a UDC graduate, I take offense to some of the statements made in this column. I was no less deserving of an education than someone who preferred to attend the more expensive private/public institutions in the area. UDC is/was affordable and close to the jobs which afforded me the opportunity to take care of my family while attending school. When I attended UDC (late 80s), the school was accredited...which translates to me a school providing "a real education."

Posted by: pieface | April 7, 2009 12:58 PM

"I honestly dont mean to insult anyone but the last time I checked, Georgetown and GW were not offering Remedial English or Middle School Algebra."

Not unless you can play basketball...

Posted by: ceebee2 | April 7, 2009 1:37 PM

Sessoms needs to consider the culture of his students. UDC offers an affordable education to many graduating DC seniors who need to financial support their families so the option of going out-of-state for the same in state $$$ won't cut it. Many UDC's students are raising their little brother/sister, caring for their elderly grandmother and trying simultaneously to care for themselves, none of which imply the student will not graduate from a 4 year university just saying might be more challenging.

As for the quality of UDC's current students population, they are coming to UDC unprepared. How is a community college going to help? UDC already offers many associates degree. We need to invest in a social support, an infastructure that allows, engages and motivate UDC students to continue. Yes, UDC has an open admission policy but that does not mean you need to work for that.

UDC needs to provide faculty that gives a darn, eliminate non-team players, invest in its image, provided mandotary advising for those students who are on academic probation.

It seems that all that matters to UDC is preserving history, this legacy of ours. Yes, DC fought for higher education for Blacks and the poor but this does not mean we need to settle for mediocracy. Demand the best, get the best- wasn't that the motto for the 60's! With all due respect UDC needs to assimilate, nostalgia is out.

Posted by: sgguarani1 | April 7, 2009 1:43 PM

First of all, most of the DC students do not have the funds to travel to other states, set up a household and continue their college education so for the many DC students with few resources that is simply not a viable option (be real, here). Perhaps it is for many white and other DC ethnicities(for whom that provision was specifically designed if you review its history). Furthermore, you have had excellent professors and educators at UDC throughout its history and it has produced many professionals who would never have had an opportunity for a college education, inspite of the difficulties they may have had in high school in DC. I have attended a variety of higher educationatl institutions and my evaluation of them is that it really doesn't matter, because the law is the law no matter who teaches it once you have properly learned to read the English language. The fallacy of education, particularly in America is that you MUST PAY ENORMOUS SUMS OF MONEY TO THE PRESIGOUS COLLEGES IN THIS COUNTRY IN ORDER TO GET THE "BEST EDUCATION." When the truth is that you can get the "best education" just by reading all of those books I have read (and mostly available in public libraries) and accomplished the same objective without ending up with an enormous, unjustified and exploitive student loan debt for the rest of your life, placing a serious burden on you and your family. For those few with photographic memories, this educational system is a piece of cake and they can avoid formally signing up and paying that huge bill to sit in classes for 4+ years to discuss with others and go over what you have spent many hours reading on your own. If you doubt this, talk to many prominent professionals who have not attended any of the signature colleges and universities and enjoyed unparalleled success in their chosen careers. America continues to perpetuate this myth that these expensive institutions yield a specific magic for all of its attendees. It does give you connections and contacts, but not necessarily anything that you could not obtain elsewhere and at must less expense.

Posted by: hotezzy | April 7, 2009 1:54 PM

The District is uniquely positioned to offer some unique programs like nowhere else in the country.

An Institute for Public Service. An Institute for Govt Procurement. Institute for Non-Profit Management. DC Govt could sure use some more qualified managers, so the city would be a prime beneficiary. Today the city govt is a victim of 30 years of DC Schools.

There are local non-profit associations whose prof'l development arms already have the curriculum and qualified instructors. There is a graduate school through USDA.

There are plenty of skilled jobs left unfilled in the area and its a shame so many DC kids waste time in the DC School system not learning the basic skills they need. I think kids should be allowed to drop out early, go to UDC and study what they want to study. If they dont want to study why is DCPS forced to warehouse the kids at taxpayer expense?

Posted by: mikey999 | April 7, 2009 1:56 PM

Response to Peabody2:

It certainly sounds like you're undermining the vast majority of DC's public school graduate; of which, I'm one. I also got my 4-year degree at UDC and a Master's degree in Finance and Accounting from UMUC. And yes, I was an average DC high school graduate. While I understand that environment impacts the performance of all of us, I think sweeping generalizations about the abilities and mental acuity of DC public school children borders on extreme insult - to say the least. You are right that DC Public schools have not lived up to their expectations, however, that does not speak to the potential in each and every child attending DC public schools.

Posted by: brainchild1 | April 7, 2009 2:24 PM

The two school system is what needs to happen. I graduated from UDC in 2006, However I when asked what college I attended? Howard is my answer, maybe that’s wrong, but I did attend there for 2 years... UDC was a 13th grade for many DC students. The atmosphere then was that of High school, many of those enrolled from this area, only stayed long enough for the tuitions checks to come back... Then they would either drop their classes or just never return... 1500 to 3000 is a lot of money for a young person from the inner city.... I hope this works, because UDC has a lot of potential.... I wish them luck, But, hey "I got mine"...

Posted by: xrendellx | April 7, 2009 3:50 PM

Brainchild and others-
This issue is not about who and who isnt "deserving" of an education,or a 4-yr degree- I myself had to start at a community college, couldnt afford/go to 4-yr (state) university until 8 years later.
But you are forgetting that the whole POINT of going to college isn't just to ATTEND for however long,it is to GRADUATE while hopefully picking up a little info toward future plans (job, grad school, whatever.)
All the civil-rights-era slogans and protest marches arent going to help a student who is not prepared to pass his courses or even put together a sentence. And those of you who have attended and graduated from UDC, gone on to Harvard Law or whatever- thats great, but as we both know, you are the tiny minority. Great teachers can help, of course,but they arent miracle workers however insulting that may sound. The question that doesnt seem to be asked is, do we want a college or a failed social program?

Posted by: peabody2 | April 7, 2009 4:12 PM

Ok, there are a couple of comments that i feel are insulting about public school education and not being able to read and write properly.

I have attended GW, GT, AU and believe me there are some who come from lilly white backgrounds that were pretty dumb, and for real, this is an inside secret, a lot of your students at these very same universities cheat! This is so true...I've seen it with my own eyes, a lot of these minor major kids cheat all the time.

Public school kids vs. private, upper scale education kids, are more alike than you may ever want to admit.

It's really about the parents support and the system set up at the school.

Posted by: weaverf | April 7, 2009 5:02 PM

I am utterly amazed that someone will advance the argument that questions whether UDC needs a 4 year college. Of course it needs one…I thoroughly support the idea of creating two year college and a 4 year college, I don’t know that the admission standards will be different because if you cannot get into the four year college, which will have standards on par with the other private colleges in the area and even UMD, you can go to school at the 2 year college and if your grades support your zeal for a 4 year college you will most certainly be admitted to attend UDC and be on track to get a 4 year degree in two year since you will be able to transfer all your community college credits. (the way it is done with all student that attend Maryland community colleges with the hopes of gaining admission into UMD).

I will like to address a few other things. UDC will not be able to compete with the Howard, American GW or GT and quiet frankly, that is not the purpose. It's purpose is primarily to address the educational needs of its citizens at an affordable level (meaning financial affordability)...while this might not be written into its bylaws/charter (I have not read it lately so I might be wrong) that is essentially the defacto purpose of the university. So far they have done a good job of educating those people who want to truly be educated…I concur that the university might offer classes that we all consider below or at high school level but speaking from someone who went to high school outside this country...(I am an American by birth by the way) a lot of colleges offer classes that I consider remedial and elementary and high-schoolish (for lack of a better term) because completed the course work when I was in elementary school.
In addition these so called “remedial courses” classes don’t count towards your degree, they are non degree requirement to wit if you don’t succeed in those classes you are not registered as a degree pursuing student so I don’t see the issue.

UDC just like any other educational institution with a purpose to educate its citizens but I can tell you that UDC does not churn out graduates that are not deserving of a 4 year degree, it might be easy to get into UDC compared to the surrounding schools but it is not easy to finish your degree requirement at the college level. Trust me.

Posted by: eyanme | April 7, 2009 5:18 PM

Ms. Pestile is a CUNY trustee. Yet, she did not find it important to mention in her praise of Dr. Sessoms that he was forced to resign from Queen's College NYC under pressure from that same board. He wasn't suitable for CUNY, but he's ok (in her opinion)for UDC.

Posted by: DCcitizen | April 7, 2009 6:24 PM

So what if some students go to UDC and take remedial courses. All that matters is that - in the end - people can graduate and go on to live productive lives. Everybody's road is different. To the UDC grad perpetrating a Howard University graduate. Stop it!

Posted by: Anacostiaque | April 7, 2009 9:51 PM

While I am in agreement with the new plan, it is not true that UDC is just an high in disguise. I have taken courses at UDC and found that it is just as competitive as any other institution I have attended in the U.S. What is true is that DC Public School graduates are not prepared as a college product and need an alternative means as the proposed plan of the new leader of UDC.

Posted by: jaiyahmjalarue | April 8, 2009 8:39 AM

Kathleen Pesile has actually taught at CUNY, and has other accomplishments which add to her credibility.


Posted by: MikeLicht | April 8, 2009 8:59 AM

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