The Big Idea: University Heights

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Forget attention-deficit disorder–New York is suffering from a skills-deficit disorder. More than any other in the nation, the city is witnessing an increasing gulf between those who have the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy and those who don’t. From finance to health care to high-end manufacturing, well-trained employees are a must. Yet for all its wealth of talent, New York comes up short in many essential skills. The most glaring symptom: an unemployment rate that exceeds the nation’s average by a good two points, no matter what the state of the economy.

Historically, New York City has not had much to offer residents who could benefit from job training. The city’s workforce development system is an ad hoc array of public and nonprofit job training programs that provide quick assistance to low-income job seekers but aren’t generally equipped to connect them with promising career opportunities. Recognizing this, the Bloomberg administration has gotten serious about helping job seekers learn the skills that the city’s employers need.

As part of its effort, the administration has moved to build the City University of New York (CUNY) into a training powerhouse. It’s a natural role. Colleges are already the trainer of choice in today’s high-skills-at-any-cost labor market–in the past decade, workers have flooded onto campuses in record numbers. Indeed, higher ed has been one of the few growth areas of the economy: Educational services will expand by 29 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to a February report by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Why universities? College campuses are conveniently located. They can cost half the price of private trainers. And they grant the most recognized business credential going: a college degree. On every count, the public City University, America’s largest urban college system, has a clear advantage–and it has been making good use of it. CUNY programming geared to working adults and local employers has exploded. Most students focus on growth sectors: health, medicine, business skills, information technology. And CUNY has responded, pursuing strict curricula that follow industry standards. The result: nearly 60,000 new students for CUNY in the last five years. That’s about half the entire student population.

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CUNY’s Newest School
These efforts don’t just help students and employers get ahead–they help CUNY, too. Last year, the university’s various workforce efforts brought in more than $100 million. The programs also attract more students for traditional degrees.

The City University is hardly alone in its vigorous pursuit of adult education students. Increasingly, public and private colleges are focusing on greatly expanding such courses, both to generate additional revenue and to reach more working adults. But CUNY has one major disadvantage compared with other New York colleges, particularly New York University: Well over 90 percent of CUNY’s adult-ed courses are not offered for academic credit. They do not contribute to an accredited degree, the credential most employers look for.

Students aren’t the only ones who lose out. Over time, failing to offer students credits could make it difficult for CUNY’s continuing education departments to be competitive. Other institutions are beginning to see continuing education departments as an opportunity to reach people who want to work toward a degree but who need the flexibility of adult-education-style courses.

Change may be on the horizon. CUNY recently set up the School of Professional Studies (SPS), housed at the CUNY Graduate Center and designed to offer credit-bearing courses and programs tailored to the needs of employers, nonprofits and working professionals. The initiative began in 2003, when the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) approached CUNY and asked the institution to design a sequence of courses to help teachers gain competency in Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s new literacy curriculum. The UFT was willing to pay for its members to attend the courses, but it had specific needs: It wanted to combine the convenient off-hours schedule of an adult education program with the for-credit rigor of a traditional degree program, so that the courses could count toward an eventual master’s degree in education.

CUNY’s central office and campuses had received many such requests before. But in the face of formidable obstacles ranging from faculty and union resistance to an inability to easily direct the client to a willing and able campus, administrators had declined to pursue these opportunities.

This time, however, the university seized on the UFT’s request. It established a school that could offer for-credit courses with the flexibility of an adult education program. Employers and individuals can now develop a training program with any of the individual campuses, starting with a single phone call.

As a result, there are more than 250 New York City teachers currently enrolled at their home high schools in a sequence of courses developed by faculty from City College.

More and more, employers are asking colleges to provide such curricula. Businesses need workers with better skills, and colleges have both higher academic standards and lower prices than do many private training providers. Colleges across the country have responded to the demand, increasingly vying with one another for a piece of the more than $60 billion that businesses now spend annually on such training.

City University campuses have engaged in this kind of “contract training” for years, creating programs primarily for nonprofits and government. In 1999, 12 of CUNY’s 19 campuses were engaged in contract training, enrolling 14,859 employees in job-skill courses designed and paid for by public and private employers.

Since then, contract training has continued to grow at CUNY. In the 2002 academic year, 23,780 individuals were trained through contracts with their employers, an increase of 60 percent. Courses included business writing for legal secretaries at Debevoise & Plimpton, customer service, computer proficiency and time management for Board of Elections employees, multicultural skills training at Kingsborough Community College for Woodhull Hospital staff, and Verizon technical training at New York City College of Technology.

There is tremendous potential for CUNY to build more contracts and programs with private businesses. “CUNY has a market, and they are very competitive on price,” notes Carol Aslanian, a national expert on continuing education and business contract training. The goal now for CUNY is to begin to unlock the possibilities. It is starting from a deficit: There has been a 17 percent decline in private sector contract training since 1999, when the Center for an Urban Future first examined CUNY’s job-training potential. Companies that did access training, however, were impressed with the results: Satisfied corporate customers, including Bear Stearns and Verizon, have come back to CUNY semester after semester for their training needs.

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The Balancing Act
The move to expand workforce-training programs at academic institutions has raised serious concerns at U.S. college campuses, and CUNY is no exception. The biggest fear, expressed most adamantly by tenured faculty and unions, is that colleges are catering to the business community at the expense of rigorous academic standards. Faculty also worry that offering more credit-bearing and degree-oriented courses through continuing education programs will allow the university to rely increasingly on part-time adjunct faculty, shrinking the number of positions available for full-time professors.

This is no light debate. It has endlessly stalled many workforce efforts and kept them isolated from academic departments. New York administrators invariably identify faculty resistance as a central obstacle to advancing workforce programming and linking those programs to degree tracks. In a survey we conducted at the Center for an Urban Future, 16 campuses identified this as a major barrier to offering credit-bearing courses through adult education programs. Indeed, many in continuing education feel their hands are tied because, as Shawn O’Riley, continuing education administrator at Hunter College, put it, “The academic side [demands] strict control over the courses, and that is not going to change anytime soon.” Another continuing education dean told us that he would like to offer credit-bearing courses but it is just not worth the fight with faculty.

To ensure faculty cooperation with the UFT training project last year, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein moved quickly to work with the Faculty Senate, the governing body representing tenured professors in academic matters, to create a governing board for the School of Professional Studies. The faculty members on the board have approval power over the content of all for-credit courses. Faculty Senate Chair Susan O’Malley, a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, is one of those members. “The School of Professional Studies was formed by CUNY to make money and that’s fine, but I’m concerned about academic quality,” says O’Malley. Although initially skeptical, O’Malley is now confident, she says, that she and her academic colleagues will be able to wield sufficient oversight. “We decided that with faculty involved in this board, we could [sign off].”

The concern about reliance on part-timers is trickier to address. CUNY faculty accurately point out that professional studies programs have become significant revenue generators at most colleges at the same time the number of tenured faculty has plummeted: In 2002, nearly 60 percent of CUNY instructors were adjuncts, and the number of full-time faculty fell to 5,656–little more than half the 1975 teaching force.

The City University administration counters that it has begun replenishing faculty, even in a time of major budget reductions: CUNY says it is hiring for 700 new faculty positions over the next two years. And Chancellor Goldstein has won over many faculty critics with his pledge to dedicate most of the revenue initially generated from the School of Professional Studies to doctoral education, one of the top priorities for faculty and students alike.

Other administrators say they, too, have seen a gradual change in attitudes. “It’s all about process and building internal partnerships,” says Yelena Melikian, director of the Business and Industry Training Center at New York City College of Technology, who has developed two credit-bearing workforce programs. “I did in the beginning have trouble having faculty come on board and accept continuing education as a legitimate partner, but now after eight years of collaboration, everyone at my college knows what we stand for and what we’re trying to do.”

Neil Kleiman is director of the Center for an Urban Future, the partner policy project of City Limits. This article was adapted from the report CUNY on the Job: The City’s New Workforce Workhorse.