From its opening in the fall of 2001, Macaulay Honors College adhered to a policy — spelled out in its charter — that restricted admission to exceptional students who enrolled directly from high school. Transfer students weren’t allowed.
Creating a new, highly selective college that offered financial and academic support to New York’s most promising students was a landmark in CUNY’s broad efforts in those years to raise its standards as a top-flight public university. But Macaulay’s faculty long had reservations about the honors college’s unusual no-transfers policy.
Excluding nontraditional students — those whose lives after high school were sidetracked by life circumstances, for instance, or immigrants who opted to start their American education at a community college — seemed inconsistent with CUNY’s mission of expanding access to education for students from diverse backgrounds and experience.
That point of view gained traction in recent years and now, for the first time, Macaulay has enrolled a small number of community college students in a bid to add diversity to the honors college and expand opportunities to deserving students who, for a variety of reasons, have taken indirect routes to college. Under a pilot program called Macaulay Bridge, 18 carefully selected sophomores — 10 from Bronx Community College and eight from Borough of Manhattan Community College — will earn their associate degrees in the spring and then continue as Macaulay at Lehman College students.
Typical of the Macaulay Bridge students is 25-year-old Carlos Perez-Valle. He was class valedictorian at Monsignor Scanlan High School in the Bronx in 2010 but his family’s financial difficulties put a hold on his college education that turned out to last seven years. Perez-Valle recalls hoping to be accepted by Macaulay when he was in high school; nearly a decade later, he’s found his way there through another route. “It’s the kind of college experience I always thought I would have — what I dreamed about when I was in high school,” he said.
All 18 Macaulay Bridge students are members of minority groups; most are Hispanic or black. Macaulay’s overall enrollment, in comparison, is currently about 50 percent white, 34 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic and 7 percent black.
“Our motivation is to make Macaulay a school that represents every segment of New York and better reflects the demographic profile of the senior colleges from which we draw,” said Macaulay Dean Mary C. Pearl. “The diversity of our Macaulay Bridge students in terms of ethnic background, age and life experience not only expands opportunity for them, but we think more diversity makes for a better education for all Macaulay students.”
Opening the Doors
Traditional Macaulay students apply as high school seniors to any of the eight CUNY senior colleges, which partner with the honors college and serve as the students’ home campuses. Admissions decisions are made by the senior colleges, and accepted students are granted free tuition and other benefits, both financial and academic — from free laptops to personalized mentoring and priority course registration. Macaulay’s 2,000 students take most of their courses on their home campuses and come together for Macaulay seminars throughout their four years. They earn joint bachelor degrees from their senior colleges and the honors college.
Admission to Macaulay is highly competitive and attracts high school students with Ivy-level credentials. Last year about 8 percent of its 6,217 applicants were accepted and those admitted had average GPAs of 94.4 and SAT scores of 1,416. But barring transfer students has been a blind spot with an unintended effect, Pearl said: “While schools like Vassar, Wesleyan and Columbia have been accepting CUNY community college students as transfers, here was CUNY’s own honors college not having access to them.”
Named dean in 2016, Pearl advanced the long-simmering idea of opening the door to exceptional community college students. She garnered support from the Macaulay board, CUNY leaders — and, crucially, funding from the Petrie Foundation and the Mellon Foundation — for a pilot program that would cover tuition and other support for up to 20 students. Lehman College, which had the smallest number of Macaulay students at 20, agreed to double its cohort, and BCC and BMCC were chosen as the pipeline campuses. First-year students with GPAs above 3.5 were invited to apply and a rigorous admissions process early in 2018 eventually produced the 18 Macaulay Bridge scholars.
The first challenge for the students was a summer program that compressed the first two Macaulay seminar courses into an intensive six weeks. In the fall, the students continued in their associate degree programs on their home campuses while taking the third Macaulay seminar at Lehman. The pilot program provides the students with all the support and financial benefits afforded traditional Macaulay students, along with a special adviser and a writing coach.
“Our traditional model of a Macaulay student is 18 years old, just out of high school,” said Joseph Ugoretz, Macaulay’s senior associate dean and chief academic officer. “But there are really strong, academically talented students at the community colleges for whom life got in the way, for whatever reason — the death of a parent, the birth of a child, immigration status. We wanted those students to have the chance to get the package of benefits and creative, rigorous education we provide at Macaulay. Also this is a group of students with a rich diversity of experience that many of our students don’t have when they come to us. So the program is good for them, and they’re good for the program.”
Seizing Second Chances
Rohan Sharma, 29, emigrated from India with his family when he was 11 and was a high-achieving student at Forest Hills High School. But then his father died and Sharma had to drop out and go to work to support his mother. “My goal became getting a security-guard license and just a regular life,” he recalls. “For 10 years I worked every kind of job. Then a couple of years ago my mother said, ‘We’re comfortable now, why not try school?’ ”
Sharma enrolled at BMCC and earned a high GPA his first semester, but still felt tentative about the reach of his ambitions. He was thrilled — and astonished — when he was accepted into the Macaulay Bridge program. “I’m completely the nontraditional Macaulay student,” Sharma said during a recent roundtable discussion with half a dozen other Bridge students. “For them to tap into this demographic of students who are very talented but are never heard of because of their lack of credentials, I think it’s beautiful.”
Sahar Alsaidi, another Bridge scholar, grew up in Yemen and graduated from high school three years ago as her country’s seventh-highest ranked student. But Yemen’s civil war, and its culture, disrupted her education. Her family fled, first to Jordan and then to the United States. “My dream was always to be a doctor,” said Alsaidi, who now lives in the Bronx. “But some members of my family said, ‘You’re a good student but it’s not your country and you don’t know the language. You should just stay home and find someone to marry you.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. I want to achieve my goals.’ ”
Alsaidi enrolled in BMCC and the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP). “I learned English and started taking classes,” she said. “I was so scared, but I challenged myself. And I got A’s. I was so excited that I was the same student here as I was at home. When they emailed me about Macaulay I didn’t think I would get it. I was so happy when they said I was accepted.”
As a group, the Macaulay Bridge scholars have impressed their Lehman professors with their maturity and determination. “What’s missing from this bunch entirely is any feeling of entitlement,” said Anna Purves, an English Department faculty member who taught one of the summer Bridge classes. “Some are recent arrivals who have to handle this huge navigation of a new country and the city. They’re climbing a much steeper mountain than the traditional Macaulay students.”
Lena Nelson, for example, came to New York from Jamaica two years ago hoping to finally go to college. She was 29, the mother of an 8-year-old son. She started at Bronx Community College in the fall of 2017 and was invited to apply to the Macaulay Bridge program after earning straight A’s her first semester. She takes her classes at night and on weekends, works full time as a guard at a Manhattan art gallery, and says she envisions her dreams of a career in health care in a way she never could. “After my bachelor’s, I’m going to move on to my masters, and then my doctorate,” Nelson said. “That’s not an if, that’s a definite.”
Pearl, Macaulay’s dean, recalls accompanying the Bridge students to a performance of Shakespeare in the Park’s “Othello” as part of their “Arts in New York” seminar last summer. “They gave a presentation before going to the play,” Pearl said, “— and I was so impressed by their comfort and pleasure with ideas. That’s when I really thought, yes, these are honors students.”