September 25, 2012

ASPIRATIONS FOR THE University of the District of Columbia (UDC) have always been greater than its realities. D.C. officials over many decades have tolerated the school’s manifest problems while pouring tens of millions of dollars into it. But, as a new report makes painfully clear, the District can no longer afford to look the other way. It is time for this institution to serve the real needs of city residents and not the conceits of political or educational officials.

The D.C. Council appointed an advisory board to study how to strengthen the university’s community college, which opened in 2009, but the board concluded it could not do so without also confronting UDC’s problems. It also concluded that eventually the community college should be spun off as an independent school with its own accreditation but that it “can only be as strong as its host institution.”

And the host institution is in trouble, the five-member advisory board found — badly confused as to its mission and precarious in its finances. With depleted reserves, stagnant student enrollment and a bloated, overpaid faculty, the university may not have sufficient funds to cover operating costs in fiscal year 2013.

UDC delivers poor results at great expense. The report found that the school’s appropriation of $16,785 per full-time-equivalent student to be the highest of 17 peer universities studied and more than double the group’s median of $7,500. Yet its graduation rate over a six-year period hovers around 12 percent. How realistic or sensible, then, is the vision sketched by President Allen Sessoms when he took office in 2008 to transform UDC into a flagship public institution akin to the University of Virginia or the University of Maryland at College Park?

In its thoughtful report, the advisory group — which included D.C. Appleseed’s Walter Smith and the Brookings Institution’s Alice M. Rivlin — makes clear its doubts, particularly about trying to increase student enrollment with dubious investments in athletic programs and new dorms. UDC must compete for D.C. residents not only with private universities in the Washington region but also with public universities around the country, thanks to the D.C. TAG Program, which helps pay out-of-state tuition costs with the help of federal grants. Of UDC’s 6,038 students enrolled as of this week, 2,479 are in the four-year program; 3,178 are in the community college.

There’s agreement about the need for the community college. But it was a mistake to create it within the existing university with so little planning or dedicated resources, a point underscored by the departure this spring of the college’s well-regarded chief executive and the shaky condition of its instructional offerings.

UDC’s board of trustees has been directed by the D.C. Council to develop by Oct. 1 a vision that explains the “mission, roles and responsibilities” of the university, the community college and the law school. Let’s hope it’s prepared to make the hard choices needed to right-size the school and redesign academic programs that are responsive to the student population, foremost being helping D.C. residents prepare for the jobs of today and tomorrow. If not, the city should rethink whether the $64 million it annually pumps into the school is worth bragging rights of having a university that bears the D.C. name.