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Transformed University of the District of Columbia Prepares for Debut

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University of the District of Columbia students talk about the drastic hike in tuition and discuss the administration's decision to split the school into a separate community college and flagship university. Video by Daniel de Vise/The Washington Post

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The University of the District of Columbia reopens later this month amid the most far-reaching changes in its 32-year history.

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When classes resume Aug. 26, the District's only public college will operate as two entities, both effectively new to the District: a two-year community college, open to all, and a four-year "flagship" university with selective admissions and tuition comparable to state universities in Virginia and Maryland. The schools will have separate faculties and student bodies.

It is a time of cautious optimism for many UDC students, who spent part of the winter protesting proposals to raise tuition and to end UDC's longtime policy of open enrollment for four-year students.

The low point of the 2008-09 academic year might have come for Ayesha Johnson as she sat in a chilly tent on the school plaza in Northwest Washington, sending the none-too-subtle, if not entirely serious, message that a looming tuition increase could put her out of her home.

Johnson returned to campus last week and began to see where her extra $1,600 was going: fresh coats of canary-yellow paint to cover fading gray walls. Working escalators. Construction crews. All that, and a palpable sense of heightened prestige.

"I'm hopeful," said Johnson, a 2001 graduate of Ballou Senior High School. "I understand the plan a little bit better now. You have to give them a chance to do what they say they are going to do."

The new president, Allen L. Sessoms, saw a need to transform a campus of dilapidated buildings and sometimes directionless students. Enrollment had dwindled from 15,000 in the 1970s to 4,700. The graduation rate among full-time, first-time students was in the single digits.

"When I got here, it was pretty clear that the university was not meeting the public trust. It was not meeting expectations," Sessoms said, speaking last week in an office permeated with the smell of fresh paint.

Sessoms, a physicist trained at Yale, came to UDC in fall 2008, leaving the presidency of the historically black Delaware State University.

The school's $3,770 tuition and open admissions suited a community college, Sessoms reasoned, but not a university. Seventy percent of students arrived in need of remedial reading or math. The seasoned faculty taught rigorous courses. "When you graduated from UDC, you knew something," Sessoms said. But almost no one graduated.

Sessoms created a separate community college, preserving the traditions of low tuition, open admissions and remedial course work to serve the large numbers of students who graduate from Washington area high schools either unable to afford a state university or unprepared for college-level work.

The tuition is a flat $3,000 a year, with no nonresident surcharge, a policy that Sessoms said is "probably unique" among community colleges.


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