NEW YORK (AP) _ Half a century ago, City College of New York was known as ``the proletarian Harvard'' and boasted about its Nobel laureates _ graduates from immigrant families like Ira Gershwin and Jonas Salk.

Now, critics say the college and its parent system, the City University of New York, have too many students who lack basic English, math and other skills, and who fail even to graduate.

In an effort to raise standards, CUNY's trustees voted this week to eliminate remedial education programs at its 11 four-year schools _ part of a nationwide trend in which colleges and universities are reconsidering whether it is their duty to educate the underprepared.

``College should be for college work, not high school work,'' said Herman Badillo, vice chairman of the CUNY board of trustees and chief proponent of the plan to end remedial education. ``Otherwise, we just devalue a college diploma.''

The decision has sparked protests and the threat of a lawsuit from organizations representing immigrants, minorities and the poor _ groups that have traditionally made up the majority of the system's students since City College was founded in 1847 as the Free Academy.

City College's student body was heavily Jewish during its glory days before World War II, and CUNY came under attack in the 1960s for having a student body that was 95 percent white. In 1970, the entire system opened admissions to guarantee a spot to any graduate of New York City high schools. That policy continues at the system's six community colleges.

CUNY's current student body of 202,000 is about two-thirds minorities, and half the students are non-native speakers of English. School figures show that more than 40 percent of CUNY students _ including those at community colleges _ fail to graduate within seven years.

A CUNY study released last week found that about one-half of minority students now enrolled in the four-year schools would not have gotten in under the new rules, which will be phased in over a three-year period beginning in the fall of 1999.

``This is wrong, immoral and may be illegal,'' Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, said of the move to cut many remedial classes.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a longtime critic of what he decries as falling standards at the City University system, congratulated the trustees for their ``courageous vote.''

``Their vote sends a powerful message that CUNY is starting the important and difficult process of restoring its reputation as one of the great public institutions of higher learning in the country,'' he said.

But Andreas Matias-Ortiza, a 24-year-old who graduates this month with honors from CUNY's Hunter College, sees things differently. Matias-Ortiza, who plans to start a Ph.D. program in history at the University of Wisconsin in the fall, needed to take remedial courses his freshman year to brush up on math and English.

``If the rules were in place back then, I would probably have gotten frustrated, dropped out, and then, who knows what?'' he says.

A 1995 Department of Education study found that 81 percent of public four-year universities across the country offered at least one remedial course and that 29 percent of freshmen took at least one of them.

But the remedial programs are expensive, and there has been a backlash.

Last year, regents at the University of Georgia voted to limit the percentage of entering freshman who need remedial classes. And over the past two years, at least four states have considered charging high schools the cost of providing remedial classes for their graduates.

In Chicago's City Colleges system, 96 of every 100 public school graduates who took a placement test this year to enroll for a degree were required to take at least one remedial course because of low test scores.

In New York, the problem is particularly acute. Last year, 63 percent of freshmen at CUNY's senior colleges and 87 percent at its community colleges flunked at least one entering exam.

Alfredo Gonzalez, a 39-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic, has been taking remedial classes in English for about a year at Hunter College and says he might have to drop out if CUNY's four-year schools stop offering them.

``They're denying education for the working class and poor people,'' he said.