2010: Year of the Community College

April 19, 2010 | CUNY Matters Columns

President Obama has said that “community colleges are an undervalued asset in our country. Not only is that not right, it’s not smart.”

He’s correct. If you want to get a lens on the future of our country – its workforce, its social and economic development, its capacity to innovate – you have to understand what’s happening at our community colleges, the largest and fastest-growing sector of higher education. They enroll almost half of all undergraduates; 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.

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 45 percent at our community colleges.

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.

Who goes to community colleges? At CUNY, three out of five students are women. Students can trace their ancestry to well over 150 countries. About 46 percent say that their native language is not English. And three-quarters come from families earning $40,000 or less.

They need, and deserve, the best education we can offer. 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.

The federal American Graduation Initiative, announced last summer, has a goal of graduating an additional five million Americans from two-year colleges by 2020 (although Congressional approval is far from assured). 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 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. 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.

Why don’t more students graduate? Financial pressures, family obligations, work schedules and even a lack of information are factors for many students. 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. And success in college doesn’t start the first day of your freshman year. It starts long before that. 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 Department of Education 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.

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 to help community-college students graduate in a timely way and gain employment. It began with just over 1,000 students and is now under way at all six CUNY community colleges. Eligible ASAP students receive financial incentives such as tuition waivers and free monthly MetroCards and use of textbooks. They agree to attend full-time but take small classes in convenient scheduling blocks in order to better concentrate their time, develop a support network and complete their assignments. All receive comprehensive academic, advisement and career development services to help maintain their focus.

Our most recent data show that 46 percent of ASAP students are projected to graduate in just two-and-a-half years. 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. We celebrate that as significant progress.