Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Frances Fox Piven

Committee Members

John Mollenkopf

Stephen Brier

Subject Categories

American Politics


Open Admissions, imposition of tuition, City University of New York (CUNY), City College take over, political economy of higher education, race and class politics.


This dissertation is a political-economic, race and class analysis of two moments of struggle at CUNY: the take over of parts of City College, leading to the Open Admissions policy in 1969; and the fiscal crisis of New York City, leading to the imposition of tuition for undergraduate students in 1975-76. Both policies illustrate the fundamental contradiction between meritocracy and democracy, two of the main political ideals that influence the way we think about American society and its higher education system. Using CUNY as a case study—with a focus on City College—and citing original interviews as well as archival material, this dissertation also explores the claims made by some of the actors who influenced the political terms that defined both policies.

I argue that the use of merit-based criteria at the municipal colleges/CUNY has been part of the process in which education becomes a commodity, making it a private good. Merit-based criteria relies on a political set of rules that is set based on institutional and political needs. Therefore, the belief that education is “the great leveler”—one of the most powerful tools to alleviate poverty and inequality in American society—is only partially correct. Also necessary is a broad, federal and state set of public policy interventions that aim to bolster funding for public higher education institutions to support both students and the institutions they attend, alongside macroeconomic interventions that limit corporate power.

In examining how students and other political actors acquired and used specific ideologies to guide their actions, I also argue that using a racial disparity framework to understand how both open admissions and the imposition of tuition came to be implemented obscures the class politics and power dynamics that influence individuals, groups, and policy outcomes. Therefore, demystifying, untangling and specifying the complex and multiple causal factors that led to both policies is one of the primary goals of this dissertation.

The resulting analysis offers a critical context for understanding the current transformation of higher education beyond CUNY.

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