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. »

Opening Remarks, Re-imagining Community Colleges: A National Colloquium

September 26, 2011 | Speeches and Testimony

I am delighted to welcome you to CUNY’s first-ever colloquium on community colleges.  Thank you for joining us.  Special thanks to Eduardo Martí, CUNY’s vice chancellor for community colleges, who has brought us together today for what I hope will be an illuminating task: rethinking what we thought we knew about community-college education.

I want to begin that process with a challenge to each one of you: to join me in raising your voices in a clarion call on behalf of this underappreciated and essential asset class in higher education.  If we don’t reimagine community college education, and convince the marketplace of its tremendous value to our future, our country’s entrepreneurial capacity and its educated workforce—that is, our social and economic front line—will be seriously compromised.

Community colleges comprise the largest and fastest-growing sector of higher education.  They are the focal point of national and state economic recovery efforts.  And they are a truly American form of higher education, welcoming all and serving a student body that, perhaps more than that of any other higher education sector, reflects our country’s changing demographics.

That’s certainly the case at the six—soon to be seven—community colleges that are part of the CUNY system.  Three out of five of our community-college students are women.  About two-thirds are black or Hispanic.  Almost half say that their native language is not English.  And three-quarters come from families earning $40,000 or less.

Our community colleges serve more than 91,000 degree-seeking students.  Over the last decade, we have seen their enrollment increase by 30 percent. 

CUNY is not alone.  More and more students, especially in this economy, understand the need to advance their education and the incredible value that a community-college education offers.  These students have a range of aspirations and deserve the best education we can offer. 

And that’s why we’ve come together today.  To paraphrase poet William Carlos Williams’s wonderful little poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so much depends on community colleges.  There is much work to be done in order to fully tap their potential—and that of their students. 

Today, the national three-year graduation rate for two-year institutions is about 22 percent.  For large urban community colleges, it’s closer to 16 percent.  And poorer students and students of color are even less likely to graduate with a degree. 

Let’s make no mistake: 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 all 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.  As we well know, success in college doesn’t start the first day of your freshman year.  It starts long before that. 

Today is all about harnessing the creativity and the will needed to address these issues and to bring together the best practices and new ideas from across the country.  It has been gratifying to see some national attention paid to our community college students.  The American Jobs Act proposed by the president a couple of weeks ago includes assistance for modernizing facilities at community colleges.  And the federal American Graduation Initiative announced a couple of years ago acknowledges the essential role of community colleges to the country’s future, and sets a goal of graduating an additional five million Americans from two-year colleges by 2020. 

But how will we get there?  I am speaking to the group that I believe holds the answers to that question.  Your expertise and creativity will help us reimagine community-college education. 

More than anything, we must act boldly.  We must be willing to question established practices and experiment with new ones.  At CUNY, we’re doing just that.  And it’s producing some astonishing results.

In 2007, we began a new program 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 in partnership with the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity.  It began with just over 1,000 students and is now under way at our six community colleges.

The program is motivated by a guiding principle: minimizing students’ uncertainty as they enter the new world of a community college.  That includes everything from uncertainty about the registration process to uncertainty about how to balance school with work. 

As a result, ASAP students receive financial incentives, such as tuition waivers for eligible students and free monthly transit cards and use of textbooks.  They attend full-time, and they are grouped together in cohorts.  They take small classes in convenient scheduling blocks, and they receive intensive academic, advisement, and career development services.  I should note that many of the ideas developed for ASAP came from research you are all familiar with and, in some cases, have even conducted.

So you might be saying: great program, but isn’t it much more expensive?  The answer is yes. 

The answer is that success merits investment.  Budgets are about making choices.  The countries that will lead in the future are the ones that invest in innovation.  If we are going to maintain our presence as a country of leaders, we must educate our students in the best ways possible.  If we can collectively demonstrate that we can raise graduation rates while maintaining quality, then it’s time to consider some very real policy changes.  Are we willing to make investments in new, effective models?  Or will we maintain the status quo, and compromise our ability to compete in global markets?

I believe that if we don’t alter our methods of funding—if we don’t make investments that have been shown to offer strong returns—then we will continue to have what I refer to as a national security issue.  It is not our borders that will be threatened but our economic security.  In the end, our economic well-being depends on a well-educated citizenry, one that can compete in an unforgiving marketplace.  There is no better investment in our collective future than an investment in education.

As we found out with the ASAP initiative, investing in innovation pays off.  Our goal for ASAP was ambitious: a three-year graduation rate of 50 percent, substantially beyond the national average.  I’m delighted to tell you that we ended up with a 55 percent graduation rate.  This was cause for real celebration—especially because the results have been subjected to rigorous evaluation.  Today, we are tracking the progress of a new cohort, one that has some remedial needs.  Preliminary results show that it, too, is already outperforming a comparison group.  And we are teasing out the effects of the different ASAP elements as we figure out how to scale up the program—and what that will cost.  What we do know is that while the cost per student may be more than the traditional model, the cost per graduate is not.  And what we need are more graduates.

But to really understand the impact of a reimagined approach like ASAP, you need to see it.  That’s why I’ve invited six of our ASAP graduates to join us as honored guests this morning.  What better way to begin our conversation about community colleges than meeting their graduates?

I’ll ask each student to stand as I introduce him or her, and then we can acknowledge all six together.

Loukman Lamany

Bronx Community College Class of 2011

Loukman is originally from West Africa and came to the United States after more than four years away from school.  With perseverance, and daily meetings with an ASAP advisor, he learned to study in English and manage a full course load, and found, in his words, “a motivating environment for success.”  He earned his associate degree in business administration and is now studying accounting and political science at CUNY’s Baruch College.

Geizel Amadour

LaGuardia Community College Class of 2009

Geizel graduated in business administration at LaGuardia in two years, then transferred to CUNY’s Queens College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree just two years later.  She calls the ASAP staff her “second family” and says that getting both financial assistance and individualized guidance was “too good to be true.”  She now plans to become a physician assistant.

Sinai Cuahutenco

Hostos Community College Class of 2011

As an 18-year-old who had spent four years in Mexico following the death of her mother, Sinai enrolled in a CUNY program that enables out-of-school youth to earn their GEDs and go on to college.  She earned her high school diploma, then graduated from the ASAP program at Hostos with a GPA of 3.98.  She is now at CUNY’s Hunter College studying biochemistry and plans to attend medical school.

Fatima Ali

Queensborough Community College Class of 2009

Fatima earned an associate degree in liberal arts after being on the dean’s list each semester and earning an award for excellence in literature and writing.  She just earned her bachelor’s degree in English this spring with a GPA of 3.97.  You’ll be glad to hear that Fatima is now considering graduate school options and is interested in pursuing higher education administration.

Linda Berkeley

Borough of Manhattan Community College Class of 2011

Linda began ASAP determined to earn a degree—and with academic and financial support, she did, graduating in two years with a degree with honors.  She also became a star on the big screen, having been featured in the ASAP Leadership Program recruitment video.  Linda is a public health major at CUNY’s Hunter College and hopes to work in health care administration.

Jamel James

Kingsborough Community College Class of 2011

Jamel earned his degree in liberal arts in two years.  Raised by a single mother, he mentored high school students through his involvement in Project Reach Youth and won a highly selective New York Needs You fellowship in 2010.  He is currently studying public affairs at CUNY’s Baruch College and plans to go to law school after graduation.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you share my pride in these community-college graduates.  Please join me in acknowledging their outstanding achievements.  I also want to recognize the remarkable director of the ASAP initiative, Donna Linderman, who has been a force of nature in creating a results-oriented program.

As these students’ stories demonstrate, we have many lessons to learn about shaping a community-college education that acknowledges the complex nature of two-year education.  What we’re learning through the ASAP initiative is also informing our development of CUNY’s new community college, set to open in 2012.  It is being created with the very idea we are addressing today: reimagining community college education.  Our goal is to improve students’ graduation rates and their career prospects.  We’re including elements like 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 college-wide theme centered around sustaining a thriving New York City. 

The creation of a new community college model exemplifies why we are gathered today: to find ways to engage students and help them achieve real proficiency.  This is no small task.  It requires, among other things, real collaboration with city, state, and federal partners.  Here in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a true advocate of quality public higher education across the state.  In fact, I am delighted to announce that the governor just this week approved CUNY’s new community college, officially establishing it as part of the CUNY system.  And I am also very pleased to acknowledge, with admiration, the governor’s latest appointment, David Wakelyn, the state’s new deputy secretary of education for New York State.  David has extensive experience in leading national projects to improve educational performance, through both the National Governors Association and America’s Choice School Design.  And I have to add that he also taught math to 7th and 8th graders through the Teach for America program.  David, on behalf of CUNY and all of us here, I welcome you. 

As I leave all of you to your work today, let me again challenge you.  Community colleges are the true testing ground for the public higher education mission of access and excellence.  This is where the ideal becomes reality: for the students who had less-than-inspiring experiences in their K-12 education, or whose aspirations have been pushed aside by real-world needs, or who may be the first in their families to go to college, or whose potential is yet to be tapped.

How do we engage them, challenge them, retain them?  As our ASAP student Sinai said, ASAP was the force that helped her crack the shell in which she was enclosed.  How do we give every student that opportunity?

I hope that today we find answers to these questions.  I am delighted that all of you have joined us, and I wish you a day of stimulating conversation and bold ideas.