Chancellor James B. Milliken

Chancellor James B. Milliken

Appointed to start on June 1, 2014, James B. Milliken serves as Chancellor of The City University of New York. »

Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association Conference: “Transitions: Preparing Students to Succeed in College”

January 9, 2009 | Speeches and Testimony

Thank you for the invitation to join you today. I am delighted to be here.

First and foremost, I want to thank Lisa Davis and the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association/Manhattanville College Task Force for focusing on the high school-to-college transition. This is a critical area that deserves sustained attention, and I commend you for drilling down into some of the most pressing issues today.

You’re not alone. Just last year, my colleagues and I on the New York State Commission on Higher Education issued our final recommendations. Improving college readiness across the state was high among our priorities. All of us know that without proper preparation and support in grades K-12, linked to strong academic programs in college, earning a degree will be a challenge for any student. So it’s very clear that all K-16 educators must work together–consistently and openly–to reach every student.

This is an area that is gaining national traction, as well. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issued a report last month noting that “other countries are surpassing the United States on measures of participation and degree completion” and that high-school graduation rates have fallen over the past two decades, shrinking the pool of college-goers. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced funding for a new effort to increase college-completion rates. In doing so, the foundation reported national statistics that only 20 percent of low-income black and Hispanic students earn any sort of postsecondary credential. The American Council on Education released a report this year warning that “[t]he tradition of young adults in the United States attaining higher levels of education than previous generations appears to have stalled.” And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that “[t]wenty years ago, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage”of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who held a postsecondary credential. It has now fallen to 10th place.”

Last October, CUNY partnered with the Carnegie Corporation of New York to host a “Summit on Public Higher Education.” We gathered presidents and chancellors from the leading public universities across the country for a discussion about the challenges facing public higher education. And there was clear consensus that a serious and growing concern was the rate of educational attainment–not simply college access or attendance, but attainment, the successful completion of a degree.

We–all of us–must find ways to help more students earn degrees. We fail in our mission as educators if we don’t do everything we can to help all students advance their skills and their horizons. We fail our students, who need a strong education to be full participants in their communities and in our global economy. And we fail our country, which needs the talents of all of our young people for its social, economic, cultural, and technological well-being.

I’d like to talk about some of the work that CUNY has done over the last several years to help our students achieve greater success, especially our efforts to work more closely with New York City high schools, where almost 70 percent of our students come from. We are committed to learning as much as we can about our students’ experience and what interventions work best, and to partnering with K-12 educators and other universities to implement the best practices.

Let me begin by telling you a little bit about the City University. The largest public urban university in the country, CUNY currently enrolls a record 244,000 degree-seeking students at its 23 colleges and professional schools. These include our 11 senior colleges and six community colleges across the five boroughs. Another 270,000 students participate in our continuing education and professional programs.

Six out of 10 of our CUNY students come from households earning less than $35,000. Almost half have a native language other than English.

As I said, of our first-time freshmen, almost 70% graduated from a New York City public high school. More than 61% of those students are black or Hispanic. This past fall, about 1,500 students from Westchester and Putnam county high schools applied to CUNY, and close to 500 enrolled.

Since 1999, when I became chancellor, we have made a series of transformational changes at the University, all of which are focused on student success. Let me cite just a few examples:
• We restructured our admission policies and tiered the CUNY system, allowing for multiple points of entry. Admission standards for our senior colleges were raised, while open enrollment at the community colleges was retained. Since then, SAT scores for our first-time freshmen have risen, as have our graduation rates.
• In order to strengthen the University’s academic profile, we have hired 1,200 new full-time faculty since 1999 to fill faculty ranks that had been sorely depleted over the last couple of decades.
• Improvements were made to our teacher education and nursing programs, areas where demand is great and high professional standards must be maintained. As a result, our graduates’ pass rates on state and national certification exams have jumped dramatically, and now hover around 98%-99% for our teacher-education graduates.
• We created new schools: a School of Professional Studies, a Graduate School of Journalism, and the Macaulay Honors College. Our Macaulay Honors College is already a highly sought-after, selective college for undergraduates, attracting some of the best students from New York City and beyond. Its most recent acceptance rate was about 23%, with an average SAT of about 1400. And we are currently developing the first public School of Public Health in New York City, which will focus on urban health and environmental issues.
• We also began an initiative called the Decade of Science to encourage greater student participation and advanced faculty research in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). We know that these are areas where our state and nation need more graduates and greater innovation.
• And perhaps most important to our purposes today, we strengthened our partnerships with the New York City Department of Education in order to improve student preparation for higher education. Today, CUNY has among the most comprehensive programs of K-12 collaborations in the country. Let me tell you about some of the components:
o First, our flagship program, called College Now, is a dual enrollment program that serves about 20,000 students from more than 300 public high schools in college-credit, developmental, and pre-college bridge courses and workshops through our 17 undergraduate campuses.
o Second, our early college initiative, which is assisted by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, partners the University with 11 early college schools that begin preparing students for college in either the 6th or the 9th grades.
o Third, through our Affiliated Schools program, 12 of the University’s colleges are affiliated with one or more of 23 New York City public schools, not including the early-college schools. Eleven of the affiliated schools are located on CUNY’s campuses.
o Fourth, we have a Middle Grades Initiative at 12 partner schools in order to enrich public school students’ middle-grades experiences and help prepare them for high school and college-level work.
o Finally, I should mention our Summer Intensive Language Program, which is now in its 10th year. Last summer, over 400 English language learners received instruction to help them make a successful transition to high school-level studies.

Clearly, preparation for college-level work is something we take quite seriously at CUNY. Every year, through our extensive program of partnerships, we learn more and more about what does and doesn’t work. I’d like to share some of our findings with you by focusing on two questions: first, what most affects students’ ability to succeed in college, and second, what actions are most effective in encouraging success?

We know that there are some fundamental factors that affect students’ ability to succeed. None are simple. Some may seem obvious. But for every student whose helicopter parents have overemphasized these messages, there are many students who are not receiving the guidance and assistance they need.

Students and their families should begin planning as early as possible for college. Habits of mind need time to take hold. Students should take a rigorous high school curriculum, including four years of math. They should not settle for doing just enough to graduate. High schools should insist on establishing challenging foundational content and a variety of study strategies (e.g., research, writing, note-taking). And students must learn about and prepare for Regents exams and the SAT.

Students should think fully and realistically about the best fit in choosing a college. Many of you may know of researcher Melissa Roderick and her colleagues, who recently tracked students in Chicago. They found that students encounter a number of “potholes” on the road to college–including the fact that few of them choose a college that truly fits their educational and social needs. The biggest mismatch is that students attend a college “with a selectivity level that is below the kinds of colleges they most likely would have been accepted to, given their level of qualifications.” So students and high schools need to participate in a structured, personalized selection process.

Students must also be encouraged to complete FAFSA forms: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. At CUNY, about 15% of students who are eligible for financial aid do not complete this basic federal form. The financial aid process must not be an impediment. It offers great returns for a relatively small investment of students’ time.

Once students are on campus, they should make every effort to enroll full-time and avoid withdrawing from courses. Momentum matters. Likewise, participating in study groups and campus activities–including on-campus jobs–helps in timely degree completion.

To put these lessons into action, CUNY recently partnered with New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity to implement what we call the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs–or ASAP–at our six community colleges. The program’s goal is for participants to graduate with an associate degree in a timely way and to gain improved employment–a seemingly simple but often elusive goal. The key is that the program incorporates proven strategies: full-time study in a cohort setting, financial assistance, block scheduling, intensive advising, and job placement assistance. The first cohort has already completed its first year and is showing higher retention rates, higher GPAs, and greater credit completion than a comparable group. The program holds great promise. Indeed, as we develop ideas for a new community college in Manhattan–which is a necessity, given that our existing community colleges are bursting at the seams–many of the ASAP ideas are guiding our curriculum concepts.

All of these efforts are related to the second question I posed earlier: what can high school and college educators do to most effectively encourage student success?

First, we can establish ongoing partnerships between secondary and postsecondary educators that focus on aligning high school graduation requirements and competencies for entry-level college work. Clifford Adelman’s well-known research on transitional issues has led to a clear conclusion: “The academic intensity of the student’s high school curriculum still counts more than anything else in pre-collegiate history in providing momentum toward completing a bachelor’s degree.” If we know that a major factor in college success is a rigorous high school curriculum–one that encourages analysis, reasoning, interpretation, and problem solving, as well as social maturity and self-awareness–then it follows that we should increase dual-enrollment program opportunities, especially for underserved, low-income students.

Earlier I mentioned our College Now program, which is in 300 public schools. We have invested in this program because we know that partnering with those schools is critical to students’ success and to CUNY’s success. And it’s working. From 2002 to 2007, college-credit course enrollments in College Now grew by 51%. The rate of successful completions also increased, from about 78% of enrollments in 2002 to almost 88% in 2007. And an analysis by our research staff shows that College Now participants who enrolled in college earned more first-year credits, had higher GPAs in their first year, and had an increased probability of persisting to a third semester than other New York City high school graduates. It’s clear that introducing a college-going culture and college-level work in high school helps students successfully transition to college. And that requires a genuine and open partnership between high schools and colleges.

This leads me to my second point about what we can do to encourage student success. And it’s fundamental to any collaboration: we can make data on postsecondary student choices and outcomes available and understood by educators.

New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein and I recently got together to discuss what more must be done to improve outcomes for students in New York City, at both the high school and college level. As a result, CUNY just began another initiative with the NYC Department of Education, called the CUNY-DOE College Readiness and Success Working Group. A key to this initiative is that our working group, which comprises representatives from both CUNY and the DOE, has begun sharing data–reams of data. We’re trying to pinpoint why too many students arrive at our colleges lacking the skills necessary for college success. About 70% of graduates from NYC public schools who enter our community colleges need remediation in at least one area–reading, writing, or mathematics. We also need to help those students who are prepared for college to succeed and graduate in a timely way. Across the country, just 36% of first-time freshmen earn a bachelor’s degree within four years of entering college.

The Working Group is developing a blueprint for college readiness and success that can be implemented by both high schools and colleges. Without access to data, such a goal would be impossible. We need to know what’s happening to which students in what high schools, and when. We need to work smarter.

Finally, all of us can encourage student success by creating strong college-going cultures in middle and high schools. By the ninth grade, we should be working consistently with students to help them and their parents understand what is necessary to access and complete college. I mentioned earlier our Middle Grades Initiative, which we established through a New York State GEAR UP grant. All of the participating schools have student populations in which more than half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Through the initiative, students receive in-class tutoring, advising and counseling, and arts education programs. They also continue to receive services as they transition to high school. The initiative also includes a parent outreach component.

And it’s helping. Our data show that the program has a statistically and academically significant impact on student GPAs and attendance rates. These are critical steps to success–which is ultimately college attendance. We have high expectations of all the participating students–and their own expectations and abilities are rising, as well.

All of our college-readiness programs and initiatives have a special sense of urgency at CUNY. The reasons are clear. The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently commissioned a report about the future of college admissions. It noted that even while our society demands a more educated citizenry, the fact remains that poorer students and students of color are not only under-represented in higher education but are also less likely to graduate with a degree. One-third of all students still take remedial courses. But close to two-thirds of African Americans and Latinos do. And whether we’re talking about financial counseling or online resources, it is often the students and parents who most need mentoring and support who receive the least information.

Our students deserve better than that. We must increase our efforts to prepare and encourage all students to succeed. We can’t just do one thing: one program here or one intervention there. What matters is paying attention to every student at every step. It is hard, intensive work. It has to start early and it has to be present at every stop on the path to graduation. It requires a serious investment–but as you and I know, the return on that investment is unequaled. Thank you.