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Autumn 2006
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CUNY’s Virtuous Circle
Nicole Gelinas

Donors reward a return to high standards.

After nearly 30 years of decline, the City University of New York has spent the last decade repairing its academic standards. Thanks to its reforms, CUNY is seeing the beginning of a virtuous circle: wealthy alumni and prominent New Yorkers are donating money to what they again see as a worthy institution.

CUNY began its descent in 1970, when it gutted entrance requirements to its four-year colleges in the name of social and racial justice. By the mid-nineties, the once-esteemed university had become a dumping ground for academically weak graduates of New York’s failing high schools. But CUNY began turning itself around a decade ago by gradually raising admissions standards, ending remedial classes at four-year colleges, and requiring high SAT scores at some schools.

The flagship of CUNY’s rejuvenation effort is its Honors College, launched in 2001. The college is unabashedly elitist. The combination of high entrance standards and free tuition is luring more than 1,200 top students a year, many from exam high schools like Stuyvesant. The college has become more selective each year. This fall, it admitted its sixth freshman class, with an impressive mean SAT score of 1,381. Current students include David Bauer, who won the $100,000 Intel Science prize while attending Hunter College High School.

Honors College students enroll at one of seven senior CUNY campuses; they take most classes with regular CUNY students but participate in four exclusive New York–themed seminars during their first two years. Besides free tuition, students get laptops and $7,500 “study stipends.” The money and other perks are a big help, since most of the students are from modest backgrounds (nearly one-third are immigrants).

CUNY’s new standards have paid off academically: 91 percent of the first Honors College class graduated within four years, and many students have won top awards, including two Truman scholarships. Graduates have gone on to law school at Harvard and Cornell and to jobs at investment banks like Bear, Stearns.

Enna Weng is one such graduate. Graduating from Baruch a semester early in December 2005, she’s now working 13-hour days at Morgan Stanley. Weng, who moved to Gotham from China when she was 15 and graduated from Bayside High School in Queens, chose the Honors College over NYU and Cooper Union. At Baruch, she completed internships at two investment banks and used her $7,500 stipend to study in Tokyo. She found her classes, especially one on derivatives, demanding and useful to her trading career, and had nothing but praise for the Honors College seminars, saying that she wished they had continued during her final two years.

Because Honors College students join modest backgrounds with high achievement, they “bring back that old-fashioned CUNY hunger for a good education,” says Richard Kaye, a Princeton Ph.D. who teaches an “Arts in New York City” seminar in the program. “The quality of the students has been amazing. They’re the most intellectually curious students I’ve taught.”

The quality of CUNY’s entire student body is up. When the university launched its reforms, entering students were among the bottom third nationwide. They’re now on the cusp of the top third, according to The Economist. Between 1995 and 2004, CUNY’s enrollment of graduates from the city’s top public high schools more than doubled. And all these well-qualified students improve the quality of CUNY classes generally, as the university must serve its best students with newly rigorous courses.

As CUNY has lifted itself out of the abyss, donors have noticed. The Honors College raised $10 million in its first two years, and $45 million in the last four years. William Macaulay, chairman of a private-equity firm and a 1966 Baruch graduate, made the largest donation this summer, citing “the turnaround at CUNY over the past several years” as the reason for his $30 million gift.

Donors have also boosted giving to the rest of the university. An “Invest in CUNY” campaign to raise $1.2 billion by 2012, begun in 2000, has reaped $810 million, with donations increasing at an annual rate of over 22 percent. Intel cofounder Andrew Grove, a 1960 City College grad who began studies as an immigrant who spoke little English, gave $26 million to City College’s School of Engineering last year.

Further, as CUNY churns out high-quality graduates, it creates a new crop of high-income donors. Weng told me that she has already given money twice to Baruch. In a few decades, if CUNY continues to build on its progress, future graduates like Intel Science prizewinner Bauer will be announcing the multimillion-dollar gifts.

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More by Nicole Gelinas:
All the World’s Not a Stage
Progressive Impatience
New York’s Next Public Safety Revolution
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The Plot Against Merit
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