CUNY at this moment in time is…

free and does not charge tuition for daytime students (though it does charge a fee to a significant minority of evening students). Indeed, since its inception, many young, mostly European immigrants and working class New Yorkers have taken advantage of this policy to get a free college degree and climb the class ladder. Many have become journalists, politicians, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businessmen, adding to the city’s burgeoning white middle class. And a few have chosen to return to teach at CUNY either as part-time instructors, tenure-track, or tenured professors. 

But now long-term and entrenched racial inequalities are being challenged by the Civil Rights Movement. Many see at CUNY much of the same segregation that has been widely critiqued and outlawed in K-12 public schools. Indeed, the majority of students at CUNY are white, while the 40% of Black and Puerto Rican students in the New York City public school system are commonly deemed ‘underprepared for college.’

There is a growing movement of students, community advocates, and politicians who want every student who graduates from a New York City high school to have a shot at attending CUNY. In 1964 CUNY and New York State leaders agreed that the university should admit more Black and Puerto Rican students, through an ‘Open Admissions’ plan to be implemented over the next 10 years. The use of an Open Admissions admissions policy in higher education has been an active national debate. At CUNY this would mean changing current admissions criteria, which has admitted overwhelmingly white incoming classes.

Not everyone favors this plan, however. Some CUNY professors are concerned about lowering academic standards by admitting students with average or below-average scores. Others are worried about how CUNY will afford a radically larger incoming class when the state is not prepared to give more funding. This is exacerbated by a diminishing tax base, which has slowly eroded over time as wealthy and middle-income majority white residents have started leaving the city for suburban life, and taking their tax dollars with them. Still, others do not want to teach students they consider to be academically inferior, even if this means that CUNY remains largely white. 

Invigorated by the Civil Rights Movement’s activism and awareness of the importance of education, advocates of Open Admissions are increasingly making the connection between college education, the right to self-determination, and survival for people of color. As a result, some want to speed up the timeline of the new plan out of concern that many young high school graduates of color are falling through the cracks, too poor to afford tuition at private colleges, and considered not academically ‘ready’ according to the current admissions criteria at CUNY.

Click below to hear CCNY President Buell Gallagher talk about student activism and open admissions in his own words in 1968:

CCNY President 1953-69 | Illustration by Jojo Karlin