Cityview: Bad Diploma-cy

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Invited to appear as a talking head on a local TV station’s discussion about the City University, I found myself up against two opponents of remedial education–men with degrees from elite private colleges and absolutely no social contact with CUNY students. Well-dressed, well-connected and pleased with their own success, they wanted to “save” CUNY from low standards and “insure” that the degrees we issued were worthwhile.

Feeling ambushed, I left the studio furious with myself for agreeing to this set-up. Then an employee carrying TV equipment shyly came up to me.

“You were great,” he said. “I’m a graduate of Manhattan Community College, and you were absolutely on target.” It was yet another accidental encounter with a successful CUNY graduate–one of the thousands my colleagues and I run into wherever we go–in banks, in offices, in the state leg-islature, in Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s own city bureaucracies.

In his recent recommendation that CUNY’s six community colleges, which serve 65,000 students in New York’s five boroughs, cease offering remedial education and leave that function to private contractors, Mayor Giuliani disregards the hard-won accomplishments of these young men and women from the era of open admissions.

Whatever our shortcomings–and our shortages of resources–the City University has helped the city fashion a middle class made up of minorities and ethnic groups that otherwise would not have attended college.

The mayor is basing his plan to remove remedial education from the community colleges on one apparently damning statistic: Only one percent of students receive their degrees within two years.

Everyone familiar with community colleges knows that graduation rates are the least important measure of the system. The mission of the two-year colleges is not to post impressive test scores or graduation rates. It is to give people who are academically disadvantaged an opportunity to find a niche in society and give them help in their career ambitions.

Instead of citing stats, we need to look at what happens to students as they pass through the system. Have their lives improved? Has the life of the city benefited? Have the schools provided services to students that have helped them get ahead in their lives? By those standards, I think the colleges have been a major success.

Graduation rates are kept low by a number of factors. Many community college students transfer to four-year colleges, both public and private, prior to getting their two-year associate’s degree. Others get the job training they need and quit school to join the workforce. And many of our students register to take a few classes without ever intending to graduate.

After eight years, nearly 50 percent of CUNY community college students do, in fact, graduate. Nationally, a 25 percent community college graduation rate within four to five years is standard.

Why is the average student’s tenure so much longer in the city? Because the typical CUNY student doesn’t fit the standard profile of other college students around the nation. That’s what makes the system so valuable. They’re immigrants; they’re often poor; they’re late bloomers; they’re people who wake up to the realization that they are ready to do serious work later in life than the typical middle-class freshman. Many have GEDs or have not been in classes for years and need to build skills for college-level work.

A full 70 percent of CUNY students at some point in their college careers attend school part-time. Many of our students–two-thirds–work one or two jobs to make ends meet and simply don’t have time to take classes full-time. Others go part-time because they can’t afford full-time tuition.

And as many as 40 percent of the students are adults with family obligations who are forced to drop out of schools for years before returning to get their degrees.

Needless to say, these are not the easiest students to deal with because they often need remedial classes to be capable of performing at the college level. But the effort is worth it when you consider what is gained.

At CUNY’s community colleges, 35 to 40 percent of stu-dents requiring remedial classes move into regular courses after only one semester. Most of the rest pass out of remedia-tion after two semesters.

If the community colleges are not permitted to provide remedial courses, they will have to turn away the mass of stu-dents who need their help. The mayor’s proposal would result in plummeting enrollment–and possibly the end of some schools as educational centers in their communities.

It’s clear that Giuliani’s attack fits perfectly with his long-term, not-so-well-disguised objective: to downsize the univer-sity and reduce the public sector, just like the Manhattan Institute and Change New York suggest. Without remediation, he could justify closing down some of the system’s campuses, replacing them with fly-by-night private contractors who would deliver remediation services for, he says, a fraction of the current cost.

As it stands now, New York City’s contribution to its community colleges is already among the lowest of any municipality in the country, despite the fact that CUNY tuition is among the highest. And where do most of these remedial students the mayor vilifies come from? The very same public school system that Giuliani gutted during his first term.

In attempting to abolish remedial classes, the mayor is punishing others for his own failings and threatening one of the best vehicles low-income New Yorkers have of escaping educational–and economic–poverty.

Professor Sandi Cooper, an ex-officio member of the CUNY Board of Trustees, is chair of the University Faculty Senate.