CUNY Students Go for the Value

Enrollment is up as survey shows student satisfaction

A MAJORITY OF CUNY students are satisfied with the value of their college education and with their academic experience at the University – a strong endorsement mirrored in this fall’s continued record-breaking enrollment.

Amid a national higher-education landscape featuring looming college costs, student indebtedness cresting toward $1.3 trillion, and politicians floating proposals to reduce student debt, anxiety is rippling through U.S. households over how to afford the all-important college degree. But the waves of students surging into the University offer powerful evidence that students and families welcome — and are experiencing — the CUNY Value message that there is an affordable, quality alternative to high tuition and mountains of debt.

Demand for a CUNY education persists with a record fall 2015 enrollment of 275,313 degree-credit students counted so far, a slight increase over last year’s record and a number that is expected to rise as all of the colleges and programs report their final matriculation numbers. And students say they want even more of CUNY — night and online classes, for example.

Sixty-four percent responding to the University’s most recent Student Experience Survey said they were very satisfied or satisfied with their academic experience. Fifty-six percent were very satisfied or satisfied with their social experience on campus, and 57 percent expressed satisfaction with the value of their education “for the price,” according to a 2015 report based on data gathered in spring 2014.

Sixty percent of respondents said their current college experience had met their expectations very well or well. For all of these “experience” questions, a significant number of students reported themselves neutral, while negative responses were low.

Chancellor James B. Milliken said the persistent heavy demand for a CUNY college education is “pretty simple to understand: It’s recognized nationally as one of the best values in education. Tuition is relatively low, the vast majority of our students receive financial aid, and relatively few graduate with student debt. At the same time our faculty are world-class and we offer attractive programs that prepare graduates for success. The combination is hard to beat.”

The University’s economic benefits are striking, and they extend past graduation. Seventy percent of undergraduates attend CUNY colleges tuition-free due to affordable tuition, New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), Pell Grants, federal tuition tax credits, The New York City Council Academic Achievement Scholarships, privately raised funds, and foundations including TheDream.US Foundation, which this past year allocated more than half of its U.S. scholarships to CUNY students.

And while student debt — close to $1.3 trillion — has skyrocketed nationally, and tuition costs continue to rise nationwide, at CUNY eight in 10 students graduate from college without any federal education loan debt, increasing their financial strength compared to debt-burdened graduates and eliminating a potential drag on postgraduate plans and aspirations.

The percentage of CUNY students taking out federal loans is small, ranging from a high of 24 percent at Lehman College to a low of 6 percent at Queensborough Community College, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s new College Scorecard website, which reports individual college-related economic facts such as how much students who had taken federal student loans were earning 10 years after entering college.

CUNY stacks up well when it comes to those after-college earnings. According to College Scorecard, former students at the senior colleges consistently earned annual salaries that are higher than the national average, $34,343, 10 years after entering college. Baruch’s former students had the highest average earnings at $54,000, followed by Queens College’s at $48,000, Hunter’s ($44,800), and Brooklyn and City (both $44,500). On average, salaries of former CUNY community college students were around the national average.

According to the New York State Department of Labor, 87.6 percent of CUNY students graduating with baccalaureate and associate degrees from 2003 to 2010, were employed in the state. Of those, 88.4 percent had baccalaureate degrees and 86.3 percent, associate degrees. Among the top New York State industries employing CUNY graduates during the period were Health Care and Social Assistance, employing 14,659 graduates whose median annual earnings were $35,080; Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services, which employed 8,782 CUNY graduates who had median earnings of $46,408, and the Finance and Insurance Industry, which employed 7,984 with median earnings of $53,400.

Nationally, average tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities have increased significantly over the 30 years from 1984-85 to 2014-15. At private fouryear institutions, average published tuition and fees rose by 146 percent, to $31,231 in 2014-15. The average published increase for in-state students at public four-year institutions was 225 percent, to $9,139, according to the College Board.

CUNY students, however, pay much less for their education than most U.S. students. Tuition for full-time New York resident undergraduates is $6,330 annually at the senior colleges and $4,800 annually at the community colleges. This academic year, a projected $1.187 billion in financial aid will go to 329,500 CUNY students: $617.7 million in federal aid, $324.8 million in state aid, $42.2 million in CUNY institutional aid, and $202 million in federal loans.

“I’ve relied on financial aid most of my academic career,” said Sean DesVignes, a Brooklyn College senior and winner of a prestigious 2015 Beinecke Scholarship, which provides $34,000 toward graduate study. DesVignes, a nationally recognized poet, plans to eventually teach creative writing. “Writing is very important to me,” he said. “It’s taken me across the world, it’s gotten me a lot of money, and it’s going to put me through school.”

“The value of the CUNY system is exceptional,” said Sean Thatcher, a College of Staten Island biology major/geology minor who received a highly selective 2015 Goldwater Scholarship, which is given to encourage high-achieving students to pursue STEM careers. Thatcher, who has been quadriplegic and in a wheelchair since a devastating lake accident six years ago, extolled the encouragement he has received from his CSI professors. “Basically, without the CUNY system I would not be the person that I am today,” he said.

“A lot of the professors here encourage undergraduate research, which is hard to come by at a lot of other institutions, but here at CSI they greatly support undergraduates and provide them with undergraduate research opportunities, as long as they are ambitious enough,” said Thatcher, who has researched rock formations of the Palisades Sill in North Bergen, N.J., and aspires to become a college professor. “I’m looking to break barriers.”

Overall, the recent CUNY Student Experience Survey reflects a CUNY undergraduate student body that is ambitious, hard-working, mostly low-income, stretched for money and time. Fifty-four percent of the students CUNY-wide reported household income of less than $30,000, 38 percent reported less than $20,000. Forty-two percent were first in their family to attend college. More than half said they work for pay, 78 percent for living expenses, and of those not working, 50 percent said they wanted to work but could not find a job. Two-thirds of the student respondents said they take care of other people. The majority indicated spending little or no time on extracurricular activities, internships and volunteer work.

Not surprisingly with their timecrunched lives, many of the students indicated they want more flexibility as to when and how they take courses. Nearly half of respondents, 45 percent, were interested in more evening courses, and more than a third, 36 percent, wanted more weekend classes.

Thirty-nine percent sought more fully online courses, while 45 percent wanted to see more “hybrid” courses blending classroom and online instruction. Chancellor Milliken has stressed that he would like to see more online course opportunities, and more student comfort with online learning, at CUNY.

The majority of students reported satisfaction with CUNY facilities and technology resources such as wireless access and availability of software; students also expressed satisfaction with the size and general availability of their classes, and 66 percent said they could register for all the courses they wanted in the previous semester. However, a number of those surveyed reported difficulty registering for courses needed for their majors, a key reason being lack of available seats rather than lack of course availability.

Strong demand for CUNY seats is expected to continue. CUNY’s previous record enrollment, in fall 2014, was 275,132, reflecting a 4.9 percent increase over the five-year period beginning in 2010. Although in recent years college enrollment nationwide experienced a slight dip, it has started to rise again, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which projects that new college enrollment highs will be set nationwide between this fall and fall 2023.

Among CUNY’s great strengths is its something-for-everyone offerings, delivered at 24 campuses located across the city’s five boroughs and serving as both academic and cultural centers while providing programs spanning college readiness, associate and baccalaureate degrees and graduate education to the Ph.D., J.D. and soon, the M.D. levels. The University’s academic sweep is the focus of this November’s CUNY Month, an annual celebration of the University’s programs that this year will offer numerous open houses and other CUNY-wide events.


Five Students Who Used a CUNY Education to Triumph Over Unfavorable Odds

A hard-knock, hardscrabble existence with the cards stacked mightily against you may not seem the perfect starting point for academic success. Then again, you might be dealt the CUNY card. Played well, it’s a lifesaver — as many students know. Here are just five of their stories.


Alassane Ngaide turned a life of hardship in a remote West African desert village into a life of academic achievement through CUNY. His story is one of many that underscore the University’s value in not only offering a quality, affordable education but the opportunity to achieve against all odds — saving lives, creating futures, strengthening the city itself. “Being a student at City Tech taught me humility and acceptance,” says Ngaide, whose parents sold most of their possessions to send him from Mauritania to New York in 2000. “This college taught me that even a poor African man from a tiny village can become successful and realize his dream when he applies himself.” Ngaide is a study in applying oneself. He had only $150 when he arrived, but bought two books and began teaching himself English, his seventh language after Arabic, French, and African tongues. For nearly a decade, he supported his parents and eight siblings while saving for City Tech. With sharp math skills, he tutored at Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center and CUNY’s SEEK opportunity program. He earned a bachelor’s in computer engineering at City Tech, where he was an honors scholar and won the college’s first Robert Noyce Scholarship, four National Science Foundation Scholarships and a Rickel Foundation scholarship for prospective teachers. He is now pursuing a master’s in mathematics at Queens College, and plans to teach college math.


Tunisian immigrant Souha Ltifi also took the long path to a CUNY education after arriving in New York in 1999 at age 20. Seventeen years later — after working minimum-wage jobs while supporting her twin sisters’ studies in France and two brothers’ education in Switzerland, and marrying and having two children — it was her turn. “In Tunisia, I never had 100 dinar in my pocket, but here I could buy pants and shoes; I was satisfied,” Ltifi says. “I was proud that my siblings completed college, but I found myself wishing that I had also attended college at a young age.” Ltifi’s turned her wishes into an associate degree in business administration at Queensborough Community College. She then moved on to accounting at Queens College.


Kirssy Martinez, Bronx Community College’s 2015 co-valedictorian, had different challenges. “For years, I didn’t even try to apply to college because I didn’t want to be asked for my Social Security card,” she says. “I was always afraid of being deported.” She arrived here at 14 from the Dominican Republic, “living in the shadows” with relatives while completing high school in the Bronx, baby-sitting and waitressing. In 2012, President Obama deferred action against “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who had arrived as children. That led to Martinez finally acquiring a Social Security number, which meant, “you automatically become someone.” With support from The Dream.US Scholarship program, Martinez balanced college and her responsibilities as a wife and mother. She entered CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA and graduated in two years. Critical to her success, she says, were CUNY’s low tuition and high-quality child care services. Now, she’s working on a bachelor’s degree in political science at City College.


F or Liliete Lopez, serious physical challenges complicated her road to a CUNY education. Growing up during Nicaragua’s bloody struggle between leftist Sandinistas and right-wing Contras in the 1980s, Lopez had dreamed of school. “But there was only one school for the blind in the capital, six hours away,” she says. When she and her mother arrived in New York, her doctors placed her in a school for the blind, but it offered only a diploma that acknowledged completion of her individualized educational plan. Seeking an academic diploma, Lopez persevered, earning a GED and entering Hostos Community College. As a Hostos Leadership Academy volunteer, she clocked more than 200 hours of community service. She also was the first student with a disability elected to the student senate. She graduated in 2010 with almost a 3.8 GPA. Then, at Queens College, she earned a dual B.A. in political science and urban studies in 2013 and two years later, a master’s in urban affairs.


CUNY Baccalaureate graduate Richard Gamarra is pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health with a $50,000 scholarship. His proposed thesis: “an epidemiological study of mental illness patterns in minority males based on their time in prison and solitary confinement.” The subject is close to home. Gamarra spent almost seven years in prison for attempted murder and selling drugs in jail. Involved with gangs since age 14, Gamarra was arrested and kicked out of a Catholic high school in Queens for gun possession. He earned a GED in jail on Rikers Island and enrolled at York College in spring 2007, intending to become a physician assistant and, like his parents, go to medical school. Then he was charged with attempting to murder two people. His first break was solitary confinement. “I had the opportunity to reflect on myself and my own behavior, to analyze how I had been living,” he says. His second break was Bard College’s Prison Initiative, where he earned As and an associate degree while in supermaximum and mediumsecurity prisons. Returning to York two months after his release, Gamarra joined the CUNY Baccalaureate program to focus on public health and health education. He also worked as a community health advocate, connecting well with former prisoners. “We came from the same places, made similar mistakes, paid the same price and at some point faced the same issues,” he says. “The CUNY B.A. allowed me to spend time on classes that would prepare me, and they pair you with an advisor in the field, which is so important,” says Gamarra, who aims to eventually earn a doctorate. “I love public health and I didn’t have time to waste.”