“A Tale of Two Tails”: Keynote Address, Education Update Breakfast Honoring Distinguished Educators

June 25, 2012 | Speeches and Testimony

It is a great pleasure to join you this morning.  Let me offer congratulations to all of those who are being recognized by Education Update, including:

  • Charlotte Frank, senior vice president of McGraw-Hill Education
  • President Tomás Morales of CUNY’s College of Staten Island
  • President Jennifer Raab of CUNY’s Hunter College
  • CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson

It is an honor to acknowledge a group that truly represents the best in education.  Given that I know and work with all of them, I suppose I have some bias about this.

With the much-appreciated opportunity I have today to talk to educators, I’d like to address a key question that concerns all of us: how can we graduate more students?  How can we ensure that more students earn the skills and degrees they will need to advance themselves, and this city, in the coming years?

It’s just one question, but it’s a complex one.  I think we can start to answer it by understanding an even more fundamental question: who are our students?

Thanks to Jay Hershenson, you already know about CUNY’s students.  For one thing, there are a lot of them.  We serve 270,000 degree-seeking students and an additional 230,000 adult and continuing education students.  They hail from 210 different countries.  Close to half are the first in their families to attend college.  And nearly three-quarters come from the NYC public schools.

But among those facts is another story.  It’s a story that I call The Tale of Two Tails. 

CUNY is now enrolling more and more high-achieving students.  That’s a tail at one end of the preparedness spectrum.  We’re also enrolling a growing number of underprepared students—a tail at the other end.  For example, the number of applicants to our Macaulay Honors College rose by 36 percent this year.  And SAT scores of those admitted to the college continue to rise.  At the same time, more than three-quarters of the students who come to our community colleges from the New York City public schools need some remediation in order to be ready for college-level work.  So as enrollment has grown, so has student variance.

This Tale of Two Tails is a story almost unique to CUNY.  We are a single system that encompasses graduate and professional schools, baccalaureate colleges, and community colleges.  And we are an integrated system.  All of our colleges and schools are located within a confined geographical area.  We have frequent student transfers, cross-campus collaborations, and consortial degree programs.  So the student variance we experience affects the entire system.

Other large public university systems operate differently.  In California, for example, there are three separate systems: the University of California, for Ph.D. and professional degrees; California State University, for bachelor’s and master’s degrees; and the California Community Colleges system for associate degrees.

The CUNY system offers all of these degrees.  And that means that our tens of thousands of students don’t line up on the same starting line.  Nonetheless, while they may start from different places, our goal is to help each of them finish.  We want to ensure that each student is prepared for the next step—and for a lifetime of learning. 

And that requires relentless innovation.  There’s no quick fix, no shortcut.   CUNY has some of the most creative and committed educators in the country working to develop targeted ways to challenge and support each student and maximize their ability to succeed.

For many students, the decision to pursue a degree is interwoven with a complex set of personal circumstances: financial need, child care, job schedules, transportation, and much more.  Even students who are academically ready for advanced study may need help in navigating a pathway to a degree.

Take, for example, a LaGuardia Community College student named Lillian Zepeda.  Lillian was a wife and mother by age 14.  She realized that she needed a college education to open up more opportunities for advancement.  And LaGuardia offered that opening, with experienced faculty and counselors and flexible scheduling options.  Lillian took a full course load for two years while caring for her two children.  Faculty and staff recognized her communication talents, her work ethic, and her stellar grades, and she earned an internship in the college’s Office of Marketing and Communication.  The college then nominated her for a Community College Transfer Opportunity Program scholarship.  And today, with a $20,000 scholarship in hand, Lillian will attend NYU this fall to study media, culture, and communication.  She herself put it best: “LaGuardia is really interested in…making its students into scholars, helping them become students who will succeed at four-year colleges.”

I am confident of Lillian’s success, and I am delighted that she is with us this morning.  Please join me in congratulating her and her mentor, Dr. Karlyn Koh, professor of English and director of the LaGuardia honors program.

Community colleges continue to be a focal point at CUNY and across the country.  They enroll almost half of all undergraduates nationwide.  But the three-year graduation rate for urban community colleges is only 16 percent.  We simply have to do better than that.  As Lillian’s story demonstrates, earning an associate degree is clearly beneficial to students.  It advances intellectual engagement, and it offers better educational and employment opportunities.  So our charge is to identify the roadblocks on the way to a degree, and determine the best interventions to address them. 

That thinking led to our ASAP initiative, an acronym for Accelerated Study in Associate Programs.  ASAP is designed to reduce the uncertainty that slows so many students’ progress and to create clear pathways to a degree.  It requires full-time study in small classes and builds in comprehensive advising and counseling.  It offers tuition waivers for eligible students and gives students free use of textbooks and a monthly MetroCard.

The results of the program have frankly been amazing.  The 2,500 participants in ASAP to date have a combined three-year graduation rate of 56 percent.  By way of comparison, a similar group of CUNY students has a 23 percent three-year graduation rate.  Just this month, MDRC, the nation’s leading research organization, reviewed ASAP’s results.  It confirmed ASAP’s findings, noting that its early effects are larger than the effects of most of the community college programs it has studied previously.

Most important, the impact on students has been tremendous.  Let me tell you about Loukman Lamany, one of our outstanding ASAP students.   He originally came to the United States from Togo, West Africa.  He spent five years in this country working in retail and other jobs—with little satisfaction.  He joined the ASAP program at Bronx Community College in the fall of 2009.  And he graduated last spring—just two years later—with a GPA of 3.77 and a transcript full of service and study-abroad activities.   He’s now studying accounting and political science at Baruch College and expects to graduate next year. 

Loukman is with us this morning, along with ASAP’s assistant director, Daniela Boykin.  Please stand so that we can acknowledge your stellar work.

What a difference the right program can make.  And that’s why CUNY is expanding ASAP in order to serve 4,000 students by 2014.  And it’s why our new community college, which is set to open this fall, incorporates several ASAP principles in its design.

Like Lillian and Loukman, most students know a great opportunity when they see one.  That’s also been true of our Macaulay Honors College—which, as I mentioned, is experiencing a record number of applicants.  We created the college in 2001 because we knew that there were many high-achieving students across the city who wanted a challenging, eye-opening college experience right here, in the city, one that wouldn’t break the bank.

So we made the college tuition free, and we offered students a laptop and a New York City cultural passport that gives them access to museums and cultural venues at little or no cost.  We incorporated courses about the city into the curriculum, along with research assistantships, study abroad options, internship opportunities, and a community service requirement.  And we’ve encouraged them to customize a course of study consistent with their ambitions.

The result has been some truly exceptional graduates: two Rhodes Scholars; numerous Truman, Goldwater, Fulbright, and National Science Foundation scholars; acceptance to the most competitive professional schools; and employment at leading firms.  Keep in mind that three-quarters of the Macaulay students are city residents, three-quarters are graduates of city schools, and 60 percent are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

They are students like Julian Flores, the son of Costa Rican immigrants who graduated from the Macaulay Honors College at City College just this month, with a degree in biology.  At Macaulay, he assisted in research of autism spectrum disorders, he counseled parents in a family health intervention program, and he participated in a summer mentorship program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  He won numerous academic awards, including the best poster in neuroscience at two national conferences, and a CUNY Jonas E. Salk scholarship.  And this fall, he’s heading to Harvard Medical School to pursue his dream of becoming a pediatrician.

I am delighted that Julian is here, accompanied by the exemplary dean of the Macaulay Honors College, Ann Kirschner.  Please join me in congratulating them.

You can see why CUNY’s mandate to create innovative, effective programs matters so much.  All of the programs I’ve mentioned are carefully designed to help students expand their learning capacity and advance their skill level and academic progress.  And indeed, across the University we continue to see increases in student graduation rates.  Still, there is much work to do. 

The Tale of Two Tails highlights a number of important issues:

  • One, we have to continue to be creative.  There is no one-size-fits-all program.  To reach students, we have to target specific challenges with thoughtful interventions.
  • Two, our work with the DOE must continue to be a priority.  Success in college depends on early planning and rigorous K-12 preparation.
  • And three, the need for investment in public higher education has never been greater.  A college education is still the best investment in the future that society can make.  But access alone is not enough.  Students need to complete a degree that truly reflects the acquisition of advanced skills.  That means investing in programs that work.  Unfortunately, across the country we’ve see a decline in state support over the last few years.  Such a retreat is short-sighted.   What students like Lillian and Loukman and Julian teach us is that challenging students to the best of our ability yields dramatic results—for them and for all of us.

We’ll continue our commitment to that challenge, and we’re privileged to do so in partnership with so many of you.  As this year’s honorees demonstrate, there’s no shortage of great talent and passion in the education community.  Thank you for your creative work on behalf of our students.