Faculty leaders at Baruch College have for years now been expressing their dismay at the college’s admissions policies – policies that have resulted in consistently low numbers of black and Latino students admitted to Baruch as freshmen. In January, the Atlantic published an article about this problem; the CUNY administration disputed the story of the student described at the beginning of the article and some other details, and the article was revised as a result. But the bigger issues raised by the article go far beyond that dispute, and are central to CUNY’s mission.
CUNY is attempting to deny that admissions policies at Baruch and the University’s other leading campuses are based primarily on applicants’ SAT scores, which is the central issue in The Atlantic story. Yet at meetings with the college’s faculty, Baruch’s president and provost regularly begin by informing us of the SAT averages of the most recent group of incoming freshmen, and crow about how they have yet again improved. Then a professor will rise and point out the well-known fact that SAT scores are more closely correlated with students’ families’ socioeconomic status than with how they are likely to perform in college, that CUNY’s historic mission has been to educate the children of the city’s working class and immigrant populations and that by placing so much emphasis on SAT scores the college is failing to honor this charge. Then the president or provost acknowledges the problem and says that they’re trying to do better. At the next meeting, the exact same conversation takes place.
Overemphasis on SAT Scores
The college’s leadership consistently concedes that black and Latino admissions are too low, and that this is because of the emphasis on SAT scores. It describes its efforts to deal with the problem, but nothing changes.
We have been told by colleagues who were present at the time that former Chancellor Matthew Goldstein informed Baruch’s president that Baruch was to be the first CUNY college to achieve an SAT average of 1200. And we understand exactly how this has been achieved. The SAT scores of transfer students are not reported, and at present nearly three-quarters of the new students coming to Baruch are transfer students. The incoming freshman class accepted is actually very small, thus enabling the admissions office to set the freshman SAT bar very high.
The faculty admissions committee for the Baruch component of the Macaulay Honors College has repeatedly worked to craft an incoming class that is balanced in a variety of ways by evaluating portfolios of student work, only to have the admissions office discard their rankings and set applicants’ SAT scores as the primary admission criterion. Each year, the committee struggles; each year, the battle repeats itself.
I have taught at Baruch for 38 years and I have seen the changes in our enrollments over the last 15 years or so. They are impossible to miss. No matter what claims CUNY’s leadership tries to make, we know that we are not teaching the same mix of students we once did. CUNY argues that the change in the makeup of freshman classes is compensated for by transfer students. We don’t see this as even remotely compensating for what has been lost. But even if their claims were true, they still fall far short of the goal of bringing in highly motivated students as freshman, rather than requiring the vast majority of them to serve an apprenticeship at the community colleges.
Baruch’s own numbers verify professors’ perceptions. Over past decades, the percentages of black and Latino students entering as freshmen in the fall have declined precipitously. In 1990, 47% were black and Latino; in 1995, 43%; in 2000, 32%; in 2005, 27%; in 2010, 18%. This past fall, after what administrators say were rigorous efforts to reverse the trend, the number improved to 22%. We are inclined to believe the trend would have continued downward if we had not demanded improvement.
We respect and admire all of our students, and what I have said here is in no way meant to disparage those who are studying with us now. But we teach at CUNY because we wish to serve all people, and CUNY campuses like Baruch are simply failing to do so. For CUNY’s leadership to deny this suggests either that they are not paying close- enough attention or that there are other factors at work here. What are they trying to distract attention from? Perhaps someone can enlighten us, someone at CUNY Central not afraid to blow a whistle.
Glenn Petersen is professor of anthropology and the chair of Baruch College’s department of sociology and anthropology.