Center for Educational Innovation/Public Education Association: “Community Colleges: The Sleeping Giant”

March 4, 2010 | Speeches and Testimony

I am delighted to join you today and want to begin by paying tribute to Sy Fliegel and the extraordinary work he has done on behalf of our city’s students.  As a teacher and superintendent, as well as a founder of the CEI and president of the CEI-PEA, he has been an important and effective voice in our community.  Sy, you’ve brought much-needed attention to our students and the quality of their educational experience, and I know I speak for all of us in saying how deeply grateful we are for your efforts.  (And since you are a proud graduate of CCNY, we take all the credit for your success.)

Welcome to 2010: what I’m calling the Year of the Community College.

Why community colleges?  Our conversation today is borne out of many sleepless nights I’ve spent thinking about our students’ progress—their ability to graduate and to succeed in a very competitive marketplace.  So much of their success depends on community colleges.  And, as I’ve said many times, I had little experience with community colleges, whether as a student, faculty member, or administrator, before I became chancellor.  Fortunately, CUNY’s six community colleges are led by outstanding presidents who are nationally recognized for their innovative work and a rich source of creative thinking about two-year colleges.  So out of my sleepless nights came a long series of conversations and ideas, and an understanding of the pivotal role community colleges play in higher education.

This country’s community colleges are the largest and fastest-growing sector of higher education.  They enroll almost half of all undergraduates.  And they are the focal point of national and state economic recovery efforts; they provide affordable degree and training programs for the country’s skilled workforce. 

But most of the country probably knows next to nothing about community colleges.  In fact, during the first half of 2009, just 1.4 percent of national news coverage from TV, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education—that’s all education, K-12 through higher education.  And of that paltry amount, less than 3 percent was devoted to community colleges [.042%]. 

President Obama has said that “[c]ommunity colleges are an undervalued asset in our country.  Not only is that not right, it’s not smart.”  He’s right.  If you want to get a lens on the future of our country—its workforce, its social and economic development, its capacity to innovate—then you have to understand what’s happening at our community colleges.

CUNY’s six community colleges serve more than 88,000 degree-seeking students.  Over the last decade, we have seen enrollment increase by an astounding 43 percent at our community colleges.  It’s akin to adding NYU’s entire undergraduate student body. 

CUNY is not alone.  In 2008, the share of young people attending college in the United States hit an all-time high.  And it’s an increase that took place entirely at community colleges.  More and more students, especially in this economy, understand the incredible value that a community college education offers: quality plus accessibility.  In fact, almost 20 percent of Americans who earned doctorates in 2008 attended a community college at some point.

So who goes to community colleges?  At CUNY, three out of five community-college students are women.  About two-thirds are black or Hispanic.  About 46 percent say that their native language is not English.  And three-quarters come from families earning $40,000 or less.

These students come from diverse backgrounds and have a range of aspirations.  They need, and deserve, the best education we can offer.  And we need their skills and talents.  As the nation’s economy continues to become one requiring more sophisticated skills, advanced degrees are increasingly necessary.  A new report indicates that jobs for those with associate degrees are expected to grow twice as fast as the national average. 

Yet at a time when our country needs more college graduates, we are instead losing ground.  The United States’ postsecondary graduation rate sits below the average of its peers among the 30-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  In addition, American 15-year-olds scored below the OECD average in science literacy and mathematics.  If our country is going to compete globally, it must educate locally, by helping more students succeed to the highest levels possible.

It has been gratifying to see that recent national and local initiatives recognize this fact.  The federal American Graduation Initiative announced last summer has a goal of graduating an additional 5 million Americans from two-year colleges by 2020.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Gateway to the Middle Class” initiative pledges $50 million over the next four years to CUNY’s community colleges to increase the city’s skilled labor force.  The goal is to graduate 120,000 New Yorkers by 2020. 

These are promising and welcome initiatives.  But a troubling reality remains: too many students are unprepared for college-level work, and too few graduate.  It’s not enough to talk about access to college; it is attainment of a college degree that will most help students—and our country.

But today, the national three-year graduation rate for urban public community colleges is about 16 percent.  What’s more, poorer students and students of color are not only under-represented in higher education nationally but are also less likely to graduate with a degree. 

I have said it repeatedly: a degree matters.  Degree recipients earn more, have better food and housing security, are healthier, and participate more in their communities. 

So why don’t more students graduate?  We know that financial pressures, family obligations, work schedules, and even a lack of information are factors for many students.  But as remediation rates point out, a significant reason is the disconnect between students’ skill levels and what is expected of them in college. 

This is why improving students’ preparedness for college is so important.  Many students don’t take enough college-preparatory courses in high school.  Some studies show that students are much more likely to finish college if they took college-preparatory algebra in high school.  One well-known researcher put it this way: “The academic intensity of the student’s high school curriculum still counts more than anything else…in providing momentum toward completing a bachelor’s degree.”  Success in college doesn’t start the first day of your freshman year.  It starts long before that. 

No one knows that better than my friend and colleague Joel Klein.  It’s why he’s doing such remarkable work in turning around our public schools.  Almost 70 percent of CUNY enrollees come from New York City public schools.  So it’s imperative that we work closely with the schools to ensure that students are prepared.  CUNY has in place several collaborative programs with the DOE to encourage college readiness and participation.  These include College Now, a dual enrollment program that serves about 20,000 public high school students, as well as a middle grades initiative and 11 early-college schools.

One of our newest and most promising partnerships with the DOE is called the CUNY-DOE College Readiness and Success Working Group, which grew out of conversations I’ve had with Chancellor Klein.  The initiative brings together both systems to find the specific factors that determine college readiness and success and to improve both.  Representatives from CUNY and the DOE are combing through research to pinpoint stumbling blocks and identify curriculum alignment issues between high school and college.  The group will be able to tell high schools how their graduates have performed at CUNY—a piece of information every teacher should have—and to identify promising programs that can be scaled up. 

Given what we already know about improving the retention, performance, and graduation rates of students, we set out in 2007 to create a new program specifically designed to help community-college students graduate in a timely way and gain employment.  The ASAP initiative—which stands for the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs—was created with the support of Mayor Bloomberg, in partnership with the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity and the New York City Council.  It began with just over 1,000 students and is now under way at all six CUNY community colleges.

The program is straightforward.  One of the key principles that emerged in our initial discussions was the importance of minimizing students’ uncertainty.  Entering college can be confusing.  Incoming community-college students find themselves in large, complex institutions with numerous departments and majors and multilayered procedures for financial aid, registration, and advising.  Many students arrive poorly prepared; they may have weak study habits and few experienced family members and friends to whom they can turn for counsel.  In addition, their education is often competing for their time against their very real need to earn a living—to pay bills and support a family.  With so many factors inhibiting their ability to fully engage with their academic pursuits, we knew that the ASAP initiative had to focus on addressing these barriers and streamlining their experience.

To that end, ASAP students receive financial incentives, such as tuition waivers for eligible students and free monthly Metrocards and use of textbooks.  They agree to attend full-time in order to immerse themselves in the academic material.  They are grouped together in cohorts to take small classes in convenient scheduling blocks, in order to better concentrate their time, develop a support network, and complete their assignments.  All of them receive comprehensive academic, advisement, and career development services to help maintain their focus.  Taken together, the program’s components are designed to reduce uncertainty and create clear pathways.

Our goal for ASAP is ambitious: a three-year graduation rate of 50 percent, substantially beyond the national average.

I am pleased to announce today that our most recent data show that 46 percent of ASAP students are projected to graduate in just two and a half years—well above a comparison group’s 16.9 percent projected rate.  And based on all predictors, we expect a three-year graduation rate of 60 percent for our ASAP students.  What’s more, almost two-thirds of ASAP’s two-year graduates have enrolled in a CUNY four-year college in order to continue their studies.  I think you’ll agree that this is significant progress.

The lessons we’re learning from the ASAP initiative are informing an even more ambitious project that we are pursuing: the development of a new community college in Manhattan.

Our enrollment surges would naturally lead us to think about the possibility of an additional campus, especially in Manhattan, which is served by only one community college, BMCC, a campus that is bursting at the seams with about 22,000 students.  But our focus in thinking about a new college has been less on alleviating space concerns than on how we might re-imagine community-college education.  We are emboldened by the initial results of the ASAP initiative and by new practices already under way at our existing community colleges.  The next question is how to embed the successful approaches into the framework of a new institution.

To answer that question, John Mogulescu, CUNY’s senior university dean for academic affairs, is overseeing the development of the new community college by drawing on the best research, practices, and scholars, both at CUNY and nationally.  Extensive input has been gathered through more than 150 meetings with faculty and staff, online surveys, and consultations with experts from academia, government, and business.  Our goal is to increase student success—that is, to improve students’ graduation rates and their career prospects.  Our development process has suggested some significant departures from the traditional college structure—things like pre-college interviews, required full-time enrollment in the first year, a common first-year curriculum, college-wide learning communities, an Office of Partnerships to establish employer relationships, and a single, college-wide theme centered around sustaining a thriving New York City.  All of these components address our overall imperative: to engage students even before the first day, and every day after that.  We must use every tool to help them achieve real proficiency.

Our work has garnered a generous grant and sustained interest from the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation.  Planning is now in the hands of 11 working committees, and discussion about budgets, facilities, and hiring is under way.

What we envision implementing will not be easy.  But there is no reason to start a new community college if we are not fully invested in implementing bold new approaches and doing everything we can to enable our students to perform to their potential and earn a degree that will maximize their future opportunities.  

The same is true of all of our community colleges.  We must be willing to engage in a national conversation about preparing students for college, challenging them academically, and supporting their likelihood of success.  And we must be willing to try new ideas, to re-consider what we thought we knew.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that our future depends on our students’ success.  As one of our ASAP students recently said as he received his associate degree—just three and a half years after arriving in this country—“ASAP has given me all the tools I need to work, learn, and achieve my goals.  But the most important lesson that they have taught me is the ability to remain focused and to believe in myself.”

For our community colleges, it’s as simple as that—and as difficult as that. 

Thank you.