Gotham Gazette

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Experts Eye 'College Success' for City Students

CUNY graduation Macaulay

(2017 Macaulay Honors College commencement, via CUNY Newswire)

Professors, researchers, and administrators gathered Monday morning to discuss issues related to higher education in New York, especially how to ensure that more New Yorkers are college-ready and successful once they enter higher education. The symposium, held at The Greene Space and titled “Moving the Needle on College Success in NYC,” was hosted by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity and growing the economy.

After a year of research, CUF is set to release a report in the next few weeks that will describe the key challenges and obstacles that prevent students from graduating college in a timely manner or cause them to drop out of their programs altogether. “Before we close the book on our own research, we really wanted to have this conversation and bring up some of the most amazing and thoughtful people on this issue,” said Jonathan Bowles, CUF executive director.

Fewer than a quarter of the students that are in two-year associate’s programs at the City University of New York (CUNY) get their degree within three years, and affordability and accessibility continue to be problems for many young people seeking a college education.

Douglas Bauer, the executive director of the Clark Foundation, an event sponsor and organization that focuses on helping people out of poverty by supporting nonprofits in New York City, started off the morning’s discussion by stating in his welcoming remarks, “We’re very blessed in the city to have tremendous resources dedicated to higher education, and indeed, some of the best institutions in the country, if not the world, reside here. So, one would think that access to these institutions would be attainable, and sadly that is not really the case.”

“We think in silos, and we operate in silos. We don’t think like a system,” Bauer added, “and the result is that some well-deserving students from underserved neighborhoods in this great city get assistance but not nearly enough.”

A panel discussion followed, with professors and administrators addressing challenges students face in trying to get their degrees, including having to work part-time, not knowing what resources are available to them, and not understanding how to navigate the “hidden curriculum,” or the knowledge and competencies often passed down to students from their family members who have attended college.

“A community college is much more complex from the point of view of the student than Columbia,” said Thomas Bailey, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, the graduate school of education, health, and psychology at Columbia University. “[Community college students] haven’t been marinated in a college-going culture from the time they were two. Their family hasn’t been to college. They don’t have a lot of information or experience to draw on.”

There was widespread talk of the need to create a college-going culture by exposing students from as early as middle school to higher education campuses and arranging for them to speak with graduates about their experiences. This culture could also include pairing up community college students into cohorts before sending them to four-year colleges as a way of encouraging them to graduate, offering more AP classes and College Now courses, amping up academic rigor, increasing advisement to help students fill out paperwork, expanding CUNY fee waivers, and even getting businesses involved by giving them incentives to employ students after they graduate or to offer more paid internships to current students.

“I think it’s not simply a matter of money because the reality is, there’s never going to be enough money,” said David Gomez, president of Hostos Community College.

Public Advocate Letitia James joined the conversation to give remarks at the CUF event. “We must develop support networks, which is so critically important. The goal cannot simply be get our children into college, and then say goodbye. We know that our children are more likely to succeed with strong networks surrounding them, and I refuse to doom children who unfortunately happen to be born in a certain zip code to failure.”

James expressed concerns about the Excelsior Scholarship, a recently passed program ushered through by Governor Andrew Cuomo, which would make CUNY and SUNY schools tuition-free for students who come from families making an annual income up to $125,000 and meet specific criteria such as taking and completing 30 credits per year. The program will be phased in over three years. “One of the issues with Excelsior is that everything is online, and the digital divide along racial lines is very, very real,” James said.

Others have criticized Excelsior, which Cuomo pegged for middle class families given that the state already had a tuition assistance program for the lowest income individuals seeking college access, for not addressing key costs like books, travel, or lodging.

When Gotham Gazette asked panelists about Excelsior, Judith Lorimer, the director of Goddard Riverside’s Options Center, said, “It’s not going to help lower-income students. It’s not free college. The way it works is it’s an additional scholarship on top of TAP and Pell. So for low-income students who receive enough TAP and Pell to cover tuition, it’s not going to affect them at all. [For] middle incomes--$50,000 to $100,000--there’s potential there, but there are a lot of complications and loops. You have to go to school right away. You have to get your 30 credits a year. You have to stay in New York afterwards, otherwise it converts to a loan. All of that is an incredible complication even for the students that it will benefit.”

Phil Weinberg, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning at the New York City Department of Education, summed up the entire debate in a nutshell when he said, “If you’re going to turn to a young person and say, ‘What problem do you want to solve?’ or ‘What plan do you want to have for yourself?,’ you have to have provided that young person with the academic abilities, and social abilities, to be able to answer that question. In many ways, that’s a privileged question to ask somebody. If the answer is ‘I wanna make sure my family pays its rent this month,’ that really limits the choices that young person has...The easiest way to make this better is something that the nation is not willing to do, which is, make this all free for everybody.”

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