A Degree of Agitation In UDC Transformation
Students Resist Changes in Structure, Tuition

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The University of the District of Columbia plans to end its open-door policy for four-year students and raise their tuition sharply at the city's only public college, a rapid transformation that has riled students accustomed to a school open to anyone who wants to enroll.

Under President Allen Sessoms's plan, UDC will be split into two schools, one for four-year students and a community college for the rest. On Wednesday, a committee of the board of trustees will consider Sessoms's recommendation that tuition increase from about $3,800 to $7,000 a year for District residents seeking four-year degrees.

The changes will not come without a fight: Students plan to pitch tents on campus today, sleep there overnight and boycott classes tomorrow to protest the plan. Some campus and city leaders are alarmed at the pace of change and skeptical that the city's long-troubled public university can pull it off -- especially without an infusion of cash.

"I think everyone is upset," senior Joshua Lopez said. "We want to make sure the university sticks to its original purpose, to provide a quality and affordable education for residents of the District of Columbia, and other people who come to UDC, as well."

The changes raise a fundamental debate about the role of education at UDC: Should the school be open to all, regardless of past performance, and nurture student improvement, or should it raise expectations and demand college-level work from those with the ability and determination to succeed?

UDC, with nearly 6,000 students, has long generated controversy in the city, and the arguments are often laden with issues of race and class. To some, the school is a symbol of opportunity, a place where anyone can go for an education and a chance at a better life. To others, it's a symbol of government waste and inefficiency, a run-down campus that drains city funding but produces few graduates.

Sessoms, 61, the Yale-trained president who arrived at the beginning of this school year, is used to controversy. He faced protests at Queens College in New York when he wanted to end open enrollment, and at Delaware State University when opponents said he was trying to erase the school's legacy as a historically black college.

The UDC board, which ushered out the previous president, William Pollard, sought a leader who would make dramatic changes.

"We didn't invite Allen Sessoms to come here to color neatly between the lines," said Shelley Broderick, dean of UDC's David A. Clarke School of Law and a member of the presidential search committee. "That's not what the university needed. What we needed was a transformative leader."

Sessoms's idea was to take the school, which has suffered from financial problems, low morale and a rapid succession of short-term leaders since it was created in the 1970s, and rethink its mission. He wants to create a university system, with a community college open to all students and a more selective four-year flagship university with admissions standards and ambitious new programs, such as a center for urban education and doctoral research. Students could live on campus, and the Firebirds would compete in Division I athletics.

Students who need remedial classes or lack scores high enough for the four-year school would have to go to the community college first, but could transfer into the university to earn a four-year degree.

"We're not ending open enrollment," Sessoms said.

The trustees endorsed his plan last month. Now school officials are rushing to put it into action by considering factors such as admissions standards, tuition and the location of a second campus for the community college.

Sessoms has suggested minimum requirements of a 2.5 grade point average and combined SAT score of 1,200 out of a possible 2400, or a 2.0 average and SAT scores of 1,400 or higher.

Students also would have the opportunity to prove their qualifications on entrance exams. Sessoms hopes to create an honors college with even higher standards, and a presidential scholars program that would provide top students a free education.

School officials hope to have standards in place for the next entering class. "We have to be competitive with the best schools in the country," Sessoms said, because District residents are eligible for tuition assistance to attend other state schools.

The current system is not working, Sessoms said. "The graduation rate [16 percent graduate within eight years] is an abomination. If you get out and you're not competitive with the best students from Bangalore . . . you're toast."

The school needs more revenue from tuition because District funding has been flat and costs are increasing, he said. Full-time students pay nearly $3,800 for the academic year. Sessoms proposed a lower price for the community college, $3,000, and dramatic increases for the university. D.C. residents would pay $7,000 a year, and those from outside the region would pay $14,000. Graduate school students would pay another $1,200 a year on top of those new levels.

That's still lower than at many nearby public universities. Sessoms said UDC will improve financial aid information so that students are aware of recent increases in Pell grants and other scholarships.

The school is searching for locations for a community college, one that would respond swiftly to job training needs from city employers and help students work up to college-level academics. One possible new home would be at Southeastern University, which is considering merger proposals from several schools.

UDC offers a wide range of courses, from job training to law school. Several years ago, the law school set admission standards. Since then it has gone from having the lowest Bar passage rate in the country to an 82 percent rate last year, Dean Broderick said.

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