What’s Happening to Public Higher Education in the District of Columbia?

Kelvin Page is just a year away from earning a bachelor’s degree in special education at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), and already he sees the program’s power. The ability to differentiate instruction, to meet students at their individual levels, to make gains, especially with students with autism: “I’m attaining exactly what I need to be a special education teacher,” he said.

But a proposed “Vision 2020” strategic plan from UDC administrators, which could be approved at the UDC Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 19, would put an end to Kelvin Page’s aspirations—and that of many other future teachers at UDC. The plan, which was written without student, faculty, or community input, calls for an end to UDC’s special education degree program, and several others with proven records of academic excellence and employability.  At the same time, it eliminates every one of UDC’s Division II athletic teams.

Higher education in the District of Columbia should be high quality, and it should be affordable and accessible, say leaders of the UDC Faculty Association (UDCFA). But the proposed plan does nothing in the way of accomplishing those key goals. Instead of cutting instructional programs that directly benefit students, UDC should consider its administrative costs: 67 cents of every tuition dollar are spent out of the classroom.

“The Plan eliminates liberal arts programs, perpetuates disparities in higher education, continues to starve UDC of funds to carry out its mission, and hampers the University’s ability to offer quality and affordable liberal arts education,” wrote UDCFA President Wilmer Johnson in a letter last week to Elaine Crider, chair of the UDC Board of Trustees. (Read the full text of the letter here) With that in mind, the UDCFA is asking the board to stop its rush to approval, and replace the proposed plan with a more inclusive, student-centered plan.

“This physics program has the highest—the very highest—retention rate in the country. It’s 100 percent! This is unheard of in physics. Nobody drops the class,” said UDC physics professor Daryao Khatri. (Indeed, national studies have found that no less than 40 percent of science and engineering majors switch to other subjects or drop out.) And yet, this unusually high performing physics program also would get the axe.

It’s almost as if UDC administrators took a look at recent studies of the most employable college majors and slashed the ones at the top of the list. Physics majors get jobs! The pressing need for math and science teachers in this nation prompted President Obama earlier this year to propose an $80 million STEM Teacher Pathway Program.

“But they [UDC] pay no attention to this!” says Khatri. “It’s not based on rational behavior.”

Meanwhile, UDC’s special education program, which recently completed an arduous accreditation process with flying colors, boasts of a 98 percent passing rate on the Praxis, a certification exam for teachers. Its graduates excel in District of Columbia Public Schools, where they work with a growing number of students with special needs. Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects demand for special educators to grow “This is a battlefield for education,” said UDC special education professor Arlene King-Berry, who can list at length her graduates who are changing lives in public schools.

Kelvin Page wants to be one of them. Page, who already has a bachelor’s degree in music and has taught music in DC Public Schools, imagines that one day he could marry his two degrees, one in music and the other in special education, to create music-oriented programs for children with autism and other special needs. In the meantime, he’s counting on UDC to deliver a high-quality and affordable higher education.

“Not everybody is wealthy. If UDC isn’t there for people like me, people who have to work and go to school, we’ll be lost,” said Page. The whole city will lose out, he said.