The Chancellor’s Desk: Benefits for the University

I write to inform you on some significant actions in Washington, D.C., and Albany that could greatly benefit CUNY and our students.

On Jan. 17, President Obama signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014. This bipartisan budget agreement restores the student aid programs that sequestration had cut and increases Pell Grants to $5,730, effective in 2014-2015.

I joined Nancy Zimpher, the SUNY chancellor, and Laura Anglin, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, in writing letters of appreciation to New York’s members of Congress who supported the bill. We also argued for substantial increases for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, whose grants are critically important to researchers; the act raised their budgets, but they remain well short of pre-sequester levels.

The act also advances President Obama’s plan to link federal aid to college performance by requiring the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to report graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients by institution; over time that should generate useful trend lines.

Similarly, DOE last year created the online College Scorecard, which posts charts for each college on costs, graduation rate, loan-default rate, average amount borrowed and employment after graduation. The administration recognizes that the metrics and data are not perfect. For example, employment depends on many factors outside a college’s control.

The president intends to augment this with a proposed rating system that would highlight college performance and accountability. To develop that system, DOE sought technical advice from stakeholders. I appointed an ad hoc committee chaired by Lehman College President Ricardo Fernández.

Their thoughtful report should be DOE’s blueprint for a valid rating system. Better-informed students should make better choices, and colleges that want to maximize their share of $150 billion in federal financial aid would have an incentive to become more efficient and student-centered. The rating system takes effect by 2015. The president intends to tie those ratings to the amount of financial aid a college could give to students by 2018.

Of course, President Obama isn’t getting much cooperation out of Congress, which is why he is doing some of this with executive orders. Unlike laws, executive orders vanish when a president leaves office, and many private and proprietary colleges and universities hope to dilute the rating initiative.

CUNY, however, endorses the rating effort. Our committee modeled the kind of system that DOE should adopt, giving equal weight to the president’s three metrics: access, affordability and student outcomes. In our modeling, CUNY’s four-year colleges would rank in the top 36 of more than 550 public four-year institutions nationally. Our two-year colleges would rank in the top half of their peers. In short, CUNY already delivers cost-effective higher education that prepares alumni for the workplace.

On a related note, our community college presidents have joined the national discussion. Kingsborough’s Interim President Stuart Suss and Hostos’ President Félix V. Matos Rodríguez provided their thoughts at the recent White House Summit on the future of higher education.

Closer to home, I attended Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State address. He proposed investing $55 million more in his CUNY 2020 capital construction initiative. While awaiting the final go-ahead for the first round, we’re excited to contemplate further campus improvements. He also proposed scholarships in STEM fields for the top 10 percent of high school students, an interesting idea. His Executive Budget proposes $102.2 million more for CUNY, although it would decrease aid to community colleges.

Of course, much can happen between a governor proposing budgets and programs and the Legislature enacting and funding them. We will be working in Albany to try to obtain an improved budget for the University.

Finally, the University community pledges our support to Chancellor-Designate James B. Milliken. We are helping in every way during this transition period so he can lead the University that we all love to even greater heights. I wish all members of the University community a successful semester as you pursue your goals and objectives.

— William P. Kelly
Interim Chancellor

William P. Kelly was appointed Interim Chancellor of The City University of New York by the Board of Trustees effective July 1, 2013, succeeding Matthew Goldstein. Dr. Kelly, a distinguished scholar of American literature, is on leave from the presidency of the CUNY Graduate Center.