Great Cities, Great Universities

August 31, 2009 | CUNY Matters Columns

This column was adapted from Chancellor Goldstein’s keynote address July 23 at the Center for an Urban Future/Community Service Society Forum on “New York’s Human Capital: The Next Generation.” You can watch the full speech on the CUNY Channel at www.cuny.edu/youtube

New York City has long been a beacon of talent. As the song goes, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But to sustain its ability to attract human capital, particularly during difficult times, the city — like so many cities across the country — must preserve its assets, those things that draw motivated, highly skilled people.

A welcoming attitude toward immigrants, unparalleled cultural opportunities, preeminent health-care options, public schools, and top-notch universities have historically been among New York’s key attractors. In these recessionary times, sustaining those factors that allow the city to attract and retain talent must be a priority.

With city and state support, there are fundamental ways that higher education can help.

First, we will always be well served by a workforce with advanced critical thinking, judgment and communication skills. In a world that is increasingly unforgiving of those without such skills, universities must continue to insist on high academic standards, rigorous programs and talented faculty in order to offer graduates a strong educational foundation.

Second, we must emphasize graduation. A degree matters. Degree holders earn more over a lifetime than those without degrees, and have greater career security and resiliency during tough economic times. But today, according to the Gates Foundation, only about 20 percent of full-time community college students nationally earn an associate degree in three years.

There are many reasons students don’t graduate, including inadequate preparation, financial pressures and family obligations. We need to address these concerns more aggressively, particularly at community colleges, where almost half of our nation’s undergraduates study. President Obama’s announcement of $12 billion in funding for community colleges, mostly to boost graduation rates and spark new designs for student engagement, is particularly welcome.

To that end, CUNY is developing a new community college in Manhattan. It will draw on lessons learned from the University’s current initiative with New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity — called the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP — incorporating innovative, promising practices to encourage degree completion, such as full-time study and enhanced employment support.

Key to sustaining New York’s attractiveness is our ability to respond to growth opportunities in emerging and high-need markets. CUNY programs focusing on health care and energy are preparing thousands of people to work in the city. The sad reality is that the jobs they train for may not be here. The city’s 220,000 small businesses employ half of its private-sector workforce, 1.5 million people. But the credit recession has devastated small businesses. Without access to working capital, they can’t rent space, purchase supplies or hire workers.

Small businesses must get the financing they need. Government must create a climate conducive to attracting private investment around industry segments, while working with lenders to facilitate access to capital, and creating incentives for universities to develop programs.

To attract New York’s human capital, priority must be given to advanced research. Our city and state rely on universities to be the catalyst for new industries, economic development, and high-skill jobs. But quality research takes time and resources, and today, we exist in a far more competitive environment for grants.

We must emphasize collaboration and shared resources in building our research capacity. An example is the New York Structural Biology Center, developed cooperatively by 10 public and private research centers, including CUNY. By leveraging the work of several partners to advance biomedical research, we all gain the advantage of high-end equipment necessary to that research. The center houses the nation’s largest, most advanced cluster of high-field research magnets, and brings to bear a community of scientific talent to areas like structural genomics.

To build research capacity, we must also keep in mind our historically welcoming attitude toward immigrants. Post-9/11 immigration policies often create unnecessary obstacles for scholars, scientists and international students seeking to study and work here. The federal administration must address these issues.

As the country works to stimulate its economy and bolster its competitiveness, fostering a talented, highly skilled, world-class workforce must be a national priority.