November 3, 2017 | Academic Affairs

looking up at fire escape ladder, nyc.By Emily Tai

CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken and CUNY’s success in fostering what educational data analysts call “intergenerational mobility”—the kernel of the American Dream that every generation can improve upon the socio-economic status of their parents—took center stage at the CLIMB Initiative Conference in Austin, Texas, this week.

The Climb Initiative—named as a partial acronym for Collegiate Leaders in Increasing Mobility—is a summit organization that brings together leaders of major university systems, such as the California Community Colleges, and the Arizona State University system; with top researchers, such as Stanford University economist Raj Chetty; past Educational leaders like Margaret Spellings (current President of the University of North Carolina); and current educational stakeholders like the College Board, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The initiative plans to track student success at private universities, such as Brown, and public institutions such as our own City University of New York to ferret out an answer to the most elusive question of all: to what extent does a college education “add value?”  Is student success in college a transformative experience that derives from the work of educators, and synergistic interactions with other students?  Or do the students who attend college succeed, irrespective of these factors, due only to their own, innate, abilities or preexisting advantages?

The College Board and College Access
For over a decade, College Board leadership has put major effort into fostering “merit over privilege” by increasing college access for students in under-represented groups.  Between 2003 and 2013, for example, the number of American high-school students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses, introducing them to college level materials in a range of over 35 subjects, grew from  approximately 19% of all high school graduates to approximately 33% of graduates.   The College Board continues to collect considerable data about the academic performance and demographic characteristics of the growing numbers of students who complete AP courses.  A partnership that might allow College Board data to be joined with data collected at colleges and universities, and analyzed by specialists such as Chetty, might well finally yield answers to the age-old “nature versus nurture” debate that has beguiled educators for centuries.

And yet, to the extent that keynote speaker Catherine Bond Hill spoke about “How to Get More Low Income Students into Selective Colleges,” one can’t help but wonder if the resources being expended on data about students might not be better spent on the students themselves.  Missing from discussions at the CLIMB conference was acknowledgment of the steady decline, across the country, in funding for public higher-education over the last three decades, as well as the decline in full-time faculty, who might have the resources and training to mentor the first-generation college students that College Board Vice-President James Montoya affirmed a commitment to serve.

Is the assembly of more data what’s truly needed to increase the access to higher education for disadvantaged students—those whom conference speakers termed the undiscovered “diamond in the rough?”

Or would more state and federal dollars suffice?

Emily S. Tai is a professor of History at Queensborough Community College who serves on the UFS Executive Committee, and edits the UFS Blog.

The UFS Blog is a forum for CUNY Faculty, and welcomes the expression of all points of view.

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