It doesn’t quite measure up to a Disturbance in the Force, but the sudden demise of Technical Career Institutes College right before the start of the new academic year should give pause to all who value the wonderful diversity of educational opportunity New York City has achieved over the past century. TCI, a private, for-profit, vocationally oriented two-year college announced Tuesday that it would close permanently. Currently, enrolled students received first notice that the college might close on July 21st. On August 16th they were assured by the chair of the college’s board that it would be open for the fall semester. Barely three weeks later they face a scramble to find other colleges that will accept their credits for last minute transfer.
At first glance, this might be dismissed as just one more fly-by-night proprietary school collapsing and leaving its students in the lurch, but there is much more to this particular closure. TCI was an institution with a storied history, founded by radio pioneer and Nobel Prize winner Guglielmo Marconi and led and championed by the legendary David Sarnoff, longtime entrepreneurial leader of RCA. Over the past century, it helped tens of thousands of students, including many immigrants and veterans, climb the social and economic latter, a record that extended to the present day. In a major national study released in January 2017, TCI ranked fourth nationally among more than two thousand colleges studied for promotion of intergenerational upward social mobility, as measured by the proportion of graduates who rose from the bottom 20% to the top 20% of the income distribution, and it did so while maintaining exceptionally accommodating admission standards. In both respects, it came out a bit ahead of the CUNY system, which also scored well in the study. TCI was neither famous nor prestigious, but it played a demonstrable role in promoting economic equality, no small accomplishment in an era in which income inequality is a major social issue.
One might think that closure of such a school would evoke public concern, and the last time the school almost closed it did. In 1973, shortly after the death of Sarnoff, RCA decided to close what was then the RCA Institutes. There was public protest, a faculty strike, and active intervention by concerned elected officials, including Bella Abzug and Herman Badillo. Under pressure, RCA sold the school to the faculty on favorable terms. The contrast to the public silence this time around couldn’t be more striking.
This is of all the greater concern because the closure of TCI is not an isolated event. In the last two years alone the city has lost two other institutions of lesser historical import but comparable value to their communities. The Brooklyn Institute of Design and Construction, a small, family run two-year non-profit, went under without a whisper in summer 2015, after almost 70 years of existence. Likewise, Queens-based Bramson ORT College in, a non-profit two-year college sponsored by an international Jewish philanthropic organization, went out of business in January of this year after 75 years of providing vocationally oriented programs. Neither closure stirred a hint of broader public discussion.
In each case, we lost good institutions that offered practical opportunities for technical training and social advancement. We should lament their passing. New York City has evolved a unique and diverse ecosystem of institutions of higher education, ranging from large research universities to professionally oriented specialty institutions like my own, with ownership distributed among the public, non-profit and proprietary sectors. We should guard against further erosion of this educational opportunity machine, starting with close attention to the practical outcomes of the new state Excelsior “free tuition” program. While well-intentioned, it puts the state’s thumb on the scale in favor of public institutions that serve the middle class, and it threatens to weaken other institutions, including public colleges, that provide opportunities for exactly the kinds of low income and immigrant students served by TCI, the Institute of Design and Construction and Bramson ORT. We need to foster and preserve the diversity and choice we have. If not, we’ll be writing more obituaries of useful institutions and taking choice from those who need it most.
Dr. Vinton Thompson was named President of Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY) in May 2008. Under his leadership, the College purchased two new campuses in Manhattan and the Bronx giving MCNY its first permanent homes. Prior to coming to MCNY, Dr. Thompson was Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kean University in Union, NJ and Provost at Chicago’s Roosevelt University where he played an important role in the renaissance of their downtown Chicago Campus and the promotion the multi-institution Chicago Loop Education Corridor. Dr. Thompson and his wife Ruth Moscovitch reside in Lower Manhattan, where Ruth maintains a labor/management arbitration practice. They have two grown children, Isaiah and Owen.