(Keynote address delivered at the 46th annual Association of Community College Trustees Leadership Congress on Oct. 16)
You’ve had a great program this week and I’m pleased a number of my CUNY community college colleagues have been with you.
I couldn’t pass up the chance to talk to this group of leaders in higher education. You have an extraordinarily important role in what I think is one of the key debates about the future of our country. It may not be as entertaining as some of the presidential debates, but I can assure you it is every bit as relevant to our future.
Community colleges are uniquely American inventions and I believe they hold the key to solving a number of our vexing challenges relating to national and regional competitiveness and individual opportunity. Unfortunately, by some measures we’re heading in the wrong direction.
When I was just out of college — and judging from the gray hair in the room, when many of you were, too — we were number one. That is, the U.S. was first in the world in educational attainment. But as most of you know, that has become a distant memory. Now, among the OECD countries, the club of the world’s wealthiest nations and our biggest competitors, we’re number 14 in attainment rates. Making matters worse, many of those countries are expanding their graduation rates faster than we are, so the U.S. is falling further behind.
This should unsettle most Americans and I’m pretty sure it unsettles you. It also certainly unsettles President Obama, who has said he wants the U.S. to be first in the world again by 2020.
Reaching that goal will be challenging, but it is absolutely worth striving for. Other countries have recognized the value of what the U.S. did in the post-war years – investing heavily in a new generation of college-goers, allowing vastly increased numbers of college graduates to contribute to unprecedented economic growth. Our friends and competitors came to appreciate the wisdom of that strategy, and they have been rapidly increasing the percentage of their citizens with college degrees. They are, in effect, lapping the U.S.
In addition to national destinies, higher education changes individual lives profoundly. You all know the economic numbers: a college graduate enjoys roughly double the lifetime earnings of a high school graduate. Almost 80 percent of all new jobs will require education beyond high school. The recent unemployment rate for those with just a high school degree was 5.2 percent, well above that of associate degree holders and more than double that of 4-year graduates.
And of course we also know that so many other social indicators improve with higher educational attainment: better health, higher levels of community involvement, less dependence on public assistance and less involvement with criminal justice
So for decades we have pushed college access, which is tremendously important. In a country where we believe deeply in equality of opportunity, insuring that the doors to institutions that build better careers and communities are open is in our national DNA.
The president’s free community college initiative doubles down on access. It is of course so timely because of the deep concerns over rising college tuitions and record levels of student debt. At a time when many students are taking on crippling debt community college leaders need to be loud and clear about the quality and value of what we provide.
But we must ask if reducing the cost of attendance alone is the right goal for us, or even the most important one. At The City University of New York, nearly 70 percent of our full-time community college students already pay no tuition because of federal, state and city aid, and over 80 percent of those who do graduate do so with zero federal debt.
We can and should improve access, particularly to underrepresented and low income populations, but by itself that’s not enough, and will not solve the biggest problem we face at community colleges. The key challenge today is significantly improving retention and graduation rates. This isn’t easy, but the stakes are huge and the battle is central to our mission.
And this is a battle most important for those students who face the greatest obstacles. While students from the highest income quartile graduate from college at a 77 percent rate, only 9 percent of those in the lowest quartile reach that goal. A substantial divide also exists among different racial and ethnic groups. That is simply unacceptable.
It is precisely from those underrepresented groups that community colleges generally draw so many of our students. So if there is a problem generally in educational attainment, there is a crisis at our community colleges. Our nation’s three year urban community college graduation rate is 15 percent.
In other words, 85 percent of the students in those urban community colleges are failing to graduate in 150 percent of the standard time to a degree.
Those figures look somewhat worse than they should, since a portion of those students – about 10 percent — leave community colleges to enroll in four-year colleges on their way to baccalaureate degrees. That is positive, but it should by no means mask concerns over the unsatisfactory overall rates.
And these are the students who have the most to gain from a degree. At CUNY, about half of our 100,000 community college students represent the first generation in their families to attend college and approximately half were born in another country. Half come from households that earn $20,000 or less a year, and most are underrepresented minorities.
It is not enough for us to provide only access or just an opportunity for advancement. We must take responsibility for equipping our students with the tools they need to take advantage of that opportunity, and be accountable for anything less.
The ladder up to the middle class and career success has been built on educational attainment. CUNY, a comprehensive University system with over 275,000 degree-seeking students, from high school completion to the PhD, has long been a magnet for students with modest financial resources and outsized abilities. Our graduates have won 13 Nobel Prizes and last year alone 22 of our students won Fulbrights. Earlier this year, there was a report on the undergraduate alma maters of the MacArthur Geniuses; only two public universities were in the top ten–Berkeley and CUNY.
Generations of immigrants, minorities and low-income Americans found that first rung at our community and other public colleges. These institutions have been, as CUNY alumnus and immigrant and Intel CEO Andy Grove said, the American Dream Machine.
That machine now needs retooling. Especially if we want all of our community college students to have a shot at the American Dream. Today I want to talk about some of the retooling we’re doing at CUNY’s community colleges, which is showing exceptional results. It is my hope that other schools will either embrace these models — and our optimism –-or develop their own equally successful innovations.
The great majority of our students come from New York City’s public schools, which, like those in other large urban systems have many challenges, so we begin with the view that our responsibilities must include programs that knit together high schools with our colleges so that more students enroll truly ready for the rigors of a quality college experience.
Instead of waiting for qualified students to show up at our doors from high schools, we need to help create them. Our collaborative programs with New York City high schools serve more than 25,000 students a year, in many instances helping them overcome inadequate preparation in subjects like math and reading, in other cases going much further and helping them actually earn college credits and associate degrees at the same time as their high school diplomas. And by the way, it costs the students nothing.
Like many of you, we have implemented Early College high schools, which provide intensive college preparatory and college classes, counseling and support – and amazing results. One of the schools, the Kingsborough Early College Secondary School, had a 93 percent high school graduation rate, with 68 percent of those students receiving at the same time their associate degrees.
This was a case where for me, seeing was believing. On my second day on the job at CUNY, I attended a graduation ceremony at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. At one point, the president asked students from the Hostos Lincoln Academy, another one of our Early College programs, to stand. A large group of students in the middle of the auditorium, all getting their associate degrees, rose to hearty applause from their classmates. Two weeks later those same young people walked across another stage and received high school diplomas.
A program we pioneered with IBM and the New York City public schools, called P-Tech, takes this a step further. Starting in 9th grade, it gives the students a chance to earn in six years their high school degree, an associate degree and substantial professional experience, and an increased likelihood of a job. After President Obama visited P-Tech in Brooklyn, he highlighted the program in a State of the Union address, which has led others to develop similar models.
Even with these programs, eighty percent of our incoming community college students require remediation in one or more subjects. To address this, our CUNY Start program is a sort of boot-camp designed to prepare those students in a highly supportive, intensive environment that costs them very little — $75 – and, importantly, does not cause them to burn through their financial aid.
It also works. From the fall of 2009 through the fall of 2014, two thirds of the incoming full-time students had failed all three subject areas on our proficiency tests, reading, writing and math, and one third had failed two subjects. By the end of the CUNY Start program, half had achieved proficiency in all three subjects and one third were proficient in two areas. With a new city investment, we’re doubling the size of the program.
Our newer Summer Start program provides 8-weeks of intensive math instruction for students who have been accepted at a school but have not passed our math remediation. They also attend a weekly college seminar helping them understand how to navigate college. It’s free and the students also receive MetroCards to help them get to their classes.
In addition to these CUNY-wide efforts, our colleges have their own exciting innovations, some showing great success, others great promise. These include the pioneering ePortfolios at LaGuardia, thematic academies at Queensborough, a virtual safety net at Kingsborough including a clever early alert app, and a two-generation initiative at Hostos, where almost one third of the students have children of their own.
Like you, with these programs and others, we have been trying to address, one by one, some of the hurdles that were holding community college students back. A CUNY initiative called the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP for short, combines many of these strategies in a comprehensive approach.
Students entering ASAP must commit to full time attendance. To make that possible, all students receive full financial aid. Since we found that transportation costs were a barrier, we provided free MetroCard passes for buses and subways.
Course choices are strictly limited – the opposite of the way many colleges operate. We felt students needed a clear roadmap and guidance, at least initially. To create a sense of community with peer support, students enter and advance within cohorts, organized by major.
Students are required to see advisors twice a month and a career specialist at least once a semester. The advisors are informed early when there are warning signs regarding academic performance or other issues. This requires many more advisors and that represents a significant, but essential investment. Under ASAP, advisors see about a third as many students as do typical CUNY community college advisors.
The results were almost immediate, and striking.
ASAP’s average three-year graduation rate has been about 52 percent overall. That compares with 22 percent for similar CUNY comparison group students and less than 17 percent for CUNY community colleges as a whole.
MDRC, a highly regarded research organization, conducted a five-year random assignment study and has concluded that ASAP’s effects are “unparalleled in large-scale experimental evaluations of programs in higher education.” In announcing its initiative for free community college, the White House also encouraged schools to adopt promising, evidence-based reforms, mentioning CUNY’s ASAP.
You know that these strategies are not inexpensive. Initially, we were spending more than $6,000 extra per student in ASAP. As we expand, that has declined to about $3,700.
We have benefited enormously from a major investment from the City of New York, which is helping in this important expansion, as well as New York State, an important supporter of the project. The budget for ASAP is growing from $26 million in the 2016 fiscal year to over $80 million in fiscal year 2019 as we take significant steps to broaden its reach.
But while the cost per student goes up, with significantly higher graduation rates, the cost per degree goes down. Let me say that again: even with a much higher investment in our community college programs, the cost per degree is less.
And the added investment yields an impressive return in other ways. Experts at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Teachers College at Columbia University determined that every dollar invested in ASAP generated at least $3.50 per associate degree to taxpayers in the form of things like increased tax revenues and social service savings.
From the standpoint of the ASAP students, every dollar invested in their education returns $12.20 as increased future earnings.
Given those results, we are doing all we can to broaden ASAP. Enrollment is set to rise from 4,000 students last year to more than 13,000 by fall 2017. We expect to reach 25,000 students across CUNY by 2018.
And, perhaps most significantly, as a key part of our expansion, CUNY’s Bronx Community College will become our first campus at which every full-time incoming freshman will enter ASAP.
At Bronx Community College, with some of CUNY’s lowest graduation rates, we will demonstrate that ASAP’s exceptionally promising results can be shared widely. That represents a critical next step–to show that we can obtain the same impressive outcomes as we scale a successful pilot.
In addition, we are also now expanding ASAP strategies to baccalaureate programs. With funding from the Robin Hood Foundation, CUNY is now starting ASAP with an initial group of 250 students entering a four-year institution, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice this fall.
With MDRC, we have started working with the state of Ohio, which is adapting ASAP for three of its community colleges. We’re hopeful that other states will work with us, delivering on shared goal that will have a profound impact on the country’s future.
The key to CUNY’s initiatives is not just the models, but what the students do with these tools. That is the secret ingredient in the formula. By helping them see themselves in such a positive light, by enjoying success, the programs give these young people tangible reasons for believing in themselves and their capabilities. What could offer them greater motivation than that?
As I was preparing for this event, I asked my community college presidents for their ideas, and one told me “you should urge this influential group to use their political clout and community leadership to advocate for higher funding for community colleges.” And, with declining state investment in higher education, I agree that’s a worthy goal.
But my message today is to urge us all to sharpen our focus on programs we can demonstrate are well worth the cost. It’s become almost reflexive for politicians to argue that we can’t improve schools only by throwing money at them. What we are learning in the real-life laboratory of CUNY and at many of your institutions is that by investing in well-designed tools that deliver what educators, political leaders and students and families want, the payoff to our students and our country can be tremendous.
Let’s take advantage of what we know works: smart, targeted investments with measurable impact. These investments will help us address stubborn remedial challenges, dramatically increase retention and graduation rates, provide opportunity to those who have not participated fully in our country’s prosperity, and, if we’re persistent, help America along the path of rising to number one again in educational attainment. That’s the case you and I should be making to political leaders, and I believe it’s one that is hard to argue with.