It was Freshman Convocation at City College of New York, and its Hamilton Heights campus was adorned with lavender and white balloons.* As freshmen spilled out of the formal ceremony in historic Shepard Hall they were greeted by hotdog carts, flavored ice and cotton candy stalls, and university representatives offering information about student life.
The Princeton Review recently selected CCNY to join the ranks of its 377 best colleges in the nation and the college jumped 200 places to 369th on the Forbes list of America’s Top Colleges.
“City College was always cool,” said incoming freshman and Harlem resident Margaret Sebastian, 18, who intends to major in engineering. But with its increased national stature, she was sure her degree would give her resume a boost. “Obviously I’m going to make it further than other people,” she said.
It is becoming increasingly tough to get in to CCNY. For fall 2012 the college admitted 33 percent of its 27,782 applicants, down from 49.4 percent of its 17,421 applicants in fall 2008.
Joshua Wilner, English professor and senior faculty adviser for undergraduate education, said that students are arriving at CCNY better prepared for the challenges of a college education. “I don’t know to what extent that is a function of a change in our admission standards,” he said.
Sebastian said that the admissions process for CCNY was rigorous and she knew the admissions office carefully considered each applicant because “it took so long to get an acceptance.”
Kenroy Cherrington, 25, who graduated in 2011 and is now studying for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), chose CCNY “because it’s called ‘The Poor Man’s Harvard.’”
CCNY, the first college of City University New York, was founded in 1847 by then New York City Board of Education president Townsend Harris as The Free Academy, on 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue. It moved to its current location on Convent Avenue in Hamilton Heights in 1907.
The 35-acre uptown campus, a mixture of neo-gothic and modern buildings, stretches from West 130th Street to West 141st Street along Convent Avenue. CCNY considers itself “one of the most important avenues to upward mobility in the United States,” according to its website, counting Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and literary critic Irving Howe among its most famous alumni.
“The idea was that college education should be available to more than just the rich or people who were planning to be clergy,” said Wilner.
Shakeena Marshall, 23, a senior majoring in psychology, said she was “very proud” to be at City College. She drives two and a half hours every morning from New Jersey to attend class – a sacrifice she’s willing to make for a good education. She thinks CCNY’s inclusion in The Princeton Review’s Top Colleges will lead to increased expectations for incoming students.
“I feel like it’s going to get tougher,” she said. “They will make it more rigorous and harder to get in.”
Wilner, the English professor, said that many contributing factors have improved CCNY in recent years. “We have a new president as of two years ago” – Lisa S. Coico – “who is very dynamic, and there’s been a very positive relationship between her and the faculty and the student body that has allowed things to happen,” he said.
Wilner also pointed out “interesting improvements in our general education curriculum,” particularly a mandatory new freshman writing class. Freshmen meet twice a week with full-time faculty members, who choose a topic for the course, and twice a week with a writing instructor. “It’s a way that we have of giving students a real taste of college-level material right out of the gate,” he said.
One thing Marshall, the psychology student, would like to see changed at CCNY is tuition. As an out-of-state student, she pays more than twice the fees of a New York State resident. The average out-of-state student pays between $5,820 and $8,730 for tuition each semester, depending on how many classes the student takes. New York State residents pay $2,715 a semester.
“Compared to NYU and Columbia, it’s still not too bad,” Marshall said, adding that she feels she is getting value for money at CCNY. “We still need to do something about tuition, but you can see that it’s going somewhere.”
CCNY started as a free school, introducing tuition in 1976. Marshall said many people want it to become free again.
“There’s still that hope. There’s still a lot of organizations working and protesting to get back to free education,” she said.
The university reports that 32 percent of the college’s 16,544 students are Hispanic, 22 percent African American, 22 percent Asian and 24 percent white, with students from 153 countries. Their varied backgrounds help make CCNY special, Wilner said.
“They’re quite alive. They’ve not arrived at college on the great conveyor-belt of life,” he said. “They’re here in large part because they’re motivated and have made choices and are ambitious.”
*This article originally stated, erroneously, that lavender and white were CCNY’s school colors. The school’s colors are lavender and black.