AS A COLLEGE PRESIDENT, Scott Evenbeck is far from alone when it comes to being “new on campus.” His school, its students, faculty and staff are all new as well, participants in a bold experiment in education. As the first community college to open in the city in 40 years, the aptly named and much-publicized New Community College will be under the microscope of educators and media for years to come. Nationwide, community colleges have been an abysmal failure at teaching and retaining the very students who need them. NCC aims to turn this around. Its curriculum is issue-based and uses the city as a learning laboratory. Students are vigorously supported by professors, peer mentors and student success advocates. It is not easy to drop a course.
Dropping out altogether is heartily discouraged: Those who want to leave are challenged to substantiate what they will do instead.
Will it work? For a college president, this could be a terrifying appointment. But Evenbeck speaks with calm confidence about a school he believes will triumph. He also has first semester data to back up his vision of student success: a student fall-to-spring retention rate of about 90 percent. “On a national scale, this retention rate is very high and I wish it were higher. We hope to document exact circumstances with each student not here,” he says.
The University, in anticipation of more students, plans to eventually move the Manhattan college out of a building across from Bryant Park to a larger one at John Jay. This fall, NCC also received a three-year accreditation from New York State. An accreditation assessment from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education is next. Evenbeck is optimistic about this, too. A psychologist, his assurance is bolstered by his national renown as an expert on at-risk students — and perhaps because he is a proverbial even-keeled Midwesterner, albeit one who loves the frenetic pace and diversity of New York.
Q. So, what is the secret formula for community colleges?
A. First, we all know why we are here at New Community College. It’s such a singular mission: Student success and learning. And we work as a team. Also, in cognitive psychology we believe it is key to attach new learning to “old” learning. We have a curriculum that is based on New York City. Our students are New Yorkers. They are in — and of — the city and they bring their own learning here; their own commitments to the city. They do field research. They are not memorizing things they will then forget. They are attaching what they learn here to what they already know. And what they learn is also connected to their future because so many of them want to stay in the city.
Q. As New Yorkers, what grabs their attention?
A. On the first day of a biology class, I saw students heading out to Bryant Park — we have started to call the park our “quadrangle” — with measuring instruments. One young man told me they would measure the carbon dioxide content of the air as well as the temperature. As we know, there is a linear relationship between the two and it is related to global warming and sustainability, which they are studying. They went back to their classroom to graph it. In a statistics course they were asked to use that linear data. In another assignment — and I thought this was also very creative on the part of the faculty — they counted what kinds of businesses there were in different neighborhoods. How many groceries, retail shops, lawyer offices. And then, as they graphed the mix of businesses in those neighborhoods they saw what the different economies were like. In the long term what we want them to be able to do is to articulate what they have learned and to think critically.
Q. What else will help them to do that?
A. The students have electronic portfolios so we — and they — can track their progress. And we have some national leaders on our faculty. Laura Gambino is a national leader in regard to assessment and Rebecca Walker has done some really important work with students who are studying math.
Q. Are there other pieces to this puzzle?
A. Yes. Service learning. For example, there is a national organization called mobilize.org, which enables students who are ‘millennials’ to explore solutions to social problems. Eight of our students, including our student government president Stephen Icaza, are involved. They have such strong representation from this tiny college.
Q. What will happen to these students after they graduate?
A. Our majors need to be consistent with what is available in the city jobwise and I think they are. We also have to look at how the city’s economy grows and changes. Also, one of the significant things CUNY talks about is the importance of education on the master’s level. At some point we might want to think about what those master’s degrees are and if we can get students on the first rung of them by what we do here. I hope we’ll continue to develop strong partnerships with high schools. I don’t think it’s too lofty a goal to have those educational pathways right through.
Q. At a fall symposium held by the Association of Community College Trustees, CUNY’s Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson spoke glowingly about NCC’s prospects but also about his own experience as a “solitary” community college student decades ago. He noted, “The only one who said anything when I missed a couple of nights in a row was the Q27 bus driver.” How do you know students here don’t feel alone?
A. Everyone knows everyone on campus. It’s small. For example, the woman who runs the security unit knows many of the students’ names and she has developed good camaraderie. Students just like to be here. They stay into the evening in the Information Commons. We get a lot of calls from parents and I really celebrate that they are interested. We try to make it as “sticky” a place as possible. There are no easy outs but we show that we care. The day after Hurricane Sandy I was downstairs to greet students at 7 a.m. — classes start at 8 a.m. — and one student said, “I am so glad to be back in a safe place. My house is filled with water and this is a safe place for me.” We had a couple of town halls and “safe” was a word that was repeated a lot.
Q. Is this the culmination of the work you did with at-risk, four-year college students in Indiana. Is this your dream job?
A. Yes. These are the students with whom I want to work. First-generation, diverse students who are in many ways the future of New York.
Q. And when you take time off?
A. I try to learn something new about New York every week. For example, I went on a harbor cruise. There are these two artificial islands off of Staten Island that used to have hospitals on them. Now if you go out there you can see harbor seals. When we got back I went to Fraunces Tavern. I had not been there since I got back to New York to take this position. Washington gave his farewell address there. New York is such a wonderful place to learn.