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.
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.
The university, in contrast, has been pruned of remedial course work. To gain admission, students have to show they are college-ready. An applicant with a 2.0 grade-point average, for example, would need a composite SAT score of at least 1400 of 2400 points to gain admission.
Sessoms initially proposed to nearly double the university's tuition in a single year. Students protested loudly, pitching tents outside the Northwest campus and turning their backs to the president en masse at one winter meeting. The school settled on a compromise that phases in the increase over two years. University students who live in the District pay $5,370 this year; students from the Maryland or Virginia suburbs pay $6,300; those from out of the region pay $12,300. Next year, the rates are scheduled to rise to $7,000, $8,000 and $14,000, respectively.
UDC will help current students who cannot pay the higher tuition, at a cost of $1 million this year in additional student aid, Sessoms said. He said the sharp increase "will put us where we need to be," with further increases only to cover inflation.
He said UDC tuition rates remain relatively low. According to figures provided by UDC, Bowie State University, for example, charges in-state students more than $6,000 and out-of-state students more than $17,000, and George Mason University charges more than $8,000 and $24,000, respectively.
The new plan "appears to have been somewhat accepted" by the student body, said Dale Lyons, the student member of the board of trustees. "The impact still hasn't hit everybody."
Sessoms said applications are up from about 2,000 at this time last year to 2,300 this year: 800 for the community college and 1,500 for the university. Schoolwide enrollment could reach 3,000 in the community college and 3,500 to 5,000 in the university.
Incoming students now apply separately to each school. Current students can choose to attend either. Those who wish to remain in the university but require remediation will have two semesters to catch up. Anyone still needing remedial help will be moved to the community college.
The higher tuition will fund a $40 million student center, the first at UDC, and building renovations to include interactive classroom technology and updated labs.
"For the first time in 30 years, there's going to be a significant investment in our physical plant," Sessoms said.
The community college will be organized around a central "hub," probably in Ward 7, in eastern Washington, with as many as six satellite locations in the city. Five satellite facilities will be open this school year. The headquarters is scheduled to move from the Van Ness campus in Northwest to the new hub next year.
Students decried the run-down state of the UDC campus even as they marched through it last winter to protest the tuition increase. Now, as they begin to see their tuition dollars at work, antipathy has softened. "I don't think there's any student who ever agrees with any tuition increase," said Teneriffe Mapp, 27, a junior. "For me personally, if there's progress that goes along with that tuition increase, then it's easier to masticate on, easier to digest."
Johnson, 25, said the work has lifted her spirits: "Those gray walls, they really took a toll on your psyche. And one day I walk in, and they're canary."
Students note other improvements: a new Web site offers online admissions and insurance forms, providing easy access to services that used to engender long lines.
Students seem to be torn over the higher standards imposed on the university. Johnson said she always felt "one of the best things about the university was the open enrollment." But she said that policy is "one of the things that keeps us from the quote-unquote prestige."