Off the Cuff

If we have learned anything over the past 40 years of trying to improve the lives of the underclass, it is that coddling hasn’t worked. No matter what ­grievances the poor have — racism or lack of opportunity or a system that favors everyone but them — the bottom line is that nothing much changes in people’s lives unless they help solve their own problems. That should be obvious, yet we still seem to harbor the hope that the right legislation or program or rallying cry can incite the most moribund Americans to fix their plight. We’re wrong. Only they can change their lives.

This is why I’m so interested in what has been happening at Temple University.
Temple has long been an urban school, like City University of New York, with a mission to provide a low-cost education not only to the poor, but also to those who can’t get in anywhere else. The former is an admirable goal, but the latter is fraught with risk: If the standards of a school are brought so low that virtually anyone can get in, a degree, to those who make it that far, becomes worthless; Timm Rinehart, Temple’s admission director since the early ’90s, called open admissions “the kiss of death.” In fact, the majority of students who required remedial courses a decade ago ended up dropping out. A Temple board member looked to two inner-city grade schools to try to find out why students were not being better prepared for college. He found that half the students arrived late, because many of their homes didn’t have clocks! TVs, yes, but no clocks. So he started giving Swatch watches to the students, and tardiness was cut by 50 percent. Another problem, this board member told me, is that the turnover rate in these grade schools was 50 percent — that is, students move from school to school, year after year, because they keep moving from one household to another. No wonder, then, that they are overwhelmingly unprepared for college.

David Adamany was brought in as Temple’s president five years ago to upgrade the school academically. Should a college designed to serve an urban population that is struggling with schoolwork suddenly start demanding more from students, starting with admissions hurdles? Well, if the college wants to survive, yes. As Temple’s standards have been raised, enrollment has gone way up, to better than 34,000. There’s only one problem: The school is becoming whiter, as more suburban kids have been recruited. This has black and Latino students up in arms; last year, Adamany’s Rittenhouse Square apartment was picketed. Faculty have questioned the changing mission of the school. “We’re trying to become a different kind of institution, and frankly, that saddens me,” William Nathan, a longtime math professor, told the Inquirer.

The Temple backlash is exactly the challenge City University of New York faced several years ago, as it scotched an open-door policy to become an institution where real learning takes place (with, incidentally, a very healthy percentage of minorities). Temple University, in demanding that all students meet certain requirements to get in, and that a degree equal a certain level of knowledge, isn’t abandoning inner-city students. On the contrary, setting standards gives poor and poorly educated students the possibility of changing their lives—if, of course, the challenge is met. The university has an enrollment agreement with five area community colleges: If students work hard there and prove themselves capable, they can move on to Temple.

Temple’s evolution strikes me as not only fair but necessary. As the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman recently wrote, we still seem to believe that because the United States is so dominant, competition from other countries is irrelevant. But the world economy is demanding a better-educated workforce, and we’re in grave danger of falling behind. This is not paranoia. An Indiana University professor who studied student motivation told Friedman, “When you talk to employers out there, they say they are not getting the skills they need.” The only chance poor and badly educated students have of joining our increasingly competitive work world is if they are given an opportunity, and take full advantage of it, so that they graduate from college with real knowledge and legitimate skills to offer an employer. Is anything less than that fair?