Since its founding in 1847, City College of New York has served as a model for urban universities throughout the United States. Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, is an alumnus. So is Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the college has produced eight Nobel Prize winners. Among the things that City College is best known for are ethnic diversity and its commitment to providing affordable education.
Students of City College commonly cite the school's diversity as one of its most important features. Chemistry major Lev Sviridov says it adds to campus life. "We have a very diverse student body," he said. "All have different interests. Yes, there are debates, yes there is heated discussion. But, overall, we are able to come to a consensus. It's lively, but it's also progressive. We do realize that we have to co-exist in one way or another, because we're all going to the same school. Whether or not you have a very heated debate on Friday, you have to come back on Monday and live together."
According to a recent survey by U.S. News and World Report, City College of New York has one of the most diversified student bodies in the nation.
But William Rogers, director of Urban Affairs at City College, recalls things were different when he grew up across the street from the school in the 1950s. "As a youngster here, City College was just a place where other people went," he said. "I remember looking out the window of my mother's bedroom, which is right over on 133rd Street, and asking, 'What is that place over there?' She indicated it's a college, and I would ask, 'Do black people go to college?' because I never saw anybody that looked like me going there."
In the late 1960s, the college adopted an open admissions policy aimed at broadening the student demographic. Today, the student body is roughly 60 percent Black and Hispanic, 25 percent Asian, and 15 percent white.
The school is located in Harlem, which is commonly referred to as "the African-American cultural capital," and also has a large Hispanic population. Urban Affairs Director William Rogers says he and college President Gregory Williams are focused on maintaining close ties to the neighborhood, which is currently enjoying what many call a renaissance.
"Our president is very encouraging, because he has an understanding of what a university needs to do to be a good neighbor," he said. "In years past, it was altruistic to do a good thing, but now it's [good] business. With the resources that are being poured into this community, it would be unwise to not be a part of whatever the revitalization efforts are. I believe that Harlem can give us the ability to be the leader in urban education."
The school, which is part of the City University of New York system, was founded in 1847 as New York's Free Academy on the principle that the government has a responsibility to provide free higher education to the underclass. Today, more than half of CCNY's students come from families earning less than $25,000 a year, and nearly three quarters of the students work part or full time.
The people of New York supported the school's founding, but it faced tough political opposition. President Williams says state-funded universities around the country face some of the same challenges. "It is still an experiment in democracy. The question still for the state legislatures around the country: Are we still going to focus on educating the children of the middle class and the poor, who cannot go off to these private schools and pay $30,000 a year or more? Are we still willing to do that? The final chapter is not written on that."
City College has not had been tuition-free since the mid-1970s. Today, students pay approximately $3,000 a year to attend. Even so, Mr. Williams says, his fundraising efforts are, by necessity, relentless. he says that state funding for public institutions in the United States has an average dropped from 75 to 25 percent in the last 30 years.