Back To Basics: Challenges at the Community College Door

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For her mere 20 years, Gina Ortiz speaks with the polish and poise of a person used to impressing her elders. She says she loved the small public high school she attended—Riverdale-Kingsbridge M.S./ H.S. 141 in the west Bronx. She aspired to attend Boston University or Northeastern, en route to a career in government or law enforcement. Those schools didn’t accept her, so, with her regents diploma in hand, she enrolled at John Jay College to begin her postsecondary education. Well, sort of. Like more than half of the New York City public high school graduates who attend CUNY institutions, Ortiz started college by reviewing material she was supposed to have already learned.

A remedial math course was a frustrating way to start her path to an associate degree. “I knew that I needed extra help. I was happy there were resources. What disappointed me was that any effort I was going to put into it wasn’t going to be for anything,” she says, a reference to the fact that remedial courses do not yield any credits toward graduation. “It was depressing. Every time I went, I resented my high school experience.” She wondered why she hadn’t studied math harder. But she hadn’t even had a math course her senior year. As she discusses the course, her irritation pierces her cool demeanor: “I never knew how harshly I was going to be fucked by it.”

Few college systems in the country can boast the history and scope that define CUNY, which traces its roots to 1847, serves probably the world’s most diverse student population, caters to a quarter-million students and manages a network of 21 campuses—which include community, comprehensive and senior colleges as well as graduate facilities—across five counties.

But for all that CUNY does, one thing it does not do well is graduating students seeking associate degrees, the foot-in-the-door credential that is the bread and butter of community colleges. The three-year graduation rate of students who entered in the fall of 2006 was 10 percent, barely distinguishable from where it was in 1999, at 9.8 percent. While some of those who don’t graduate on time remain with the school and keep trying, six in 10 do not.

Community colleges, where students usually pursue associate degrees, are the new “it” topic of education circles. During the 2009 mayoral campaign, Bloomberg pledged to give $50 million in additional funding to the CUNY community colleges. Last summer, President Obama promised new federal money to community colleges through the American Graduation Initiative, which he called “the most significant down payment yet on reaching the goal of having the highest college graduation rate of any nation in the world.”

CUNY’s community college performance is worse, but not much worse, than the national-average 19 percent graduation rate at three years. Around the country and for decades, community colleges have struggled to get students to graduate. In part this is because their students face unique challenges. “Life is always getting in the way for college students,” says Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia’s Teachers College. “A third of community college students have dependents, whether it’s parents or whether it’s children.”

But these days, at least in CUNY’s case, the graduation problem has a new wrinkle, because its incoming students appear to be better prepared.

Most first-time CUNY community college students come from New York City public high schools. And for the past several years, the city’s high school graduation rates—and the share of graduates earning more challenging regents diplomas— have been steadily climbing.

Yet CUNY’s community college graduation rate remains low. That’s partly because so many community college students have to take time out to catch up on skills they never picked up in high school, as Ortiz did. The percentage of community college students requiring remedial coursework has decreased over the past decade—from 84 percent in 2000 to 71 percent last year. But it’s still high. The puzzle of how to get more high school graduates through community college is occupying more attention at both the city department of education’s Chambers Street headquarters and CUNY’s central office on East 80th Street.

Students like Ortiz, meanwhile, sort it out on their own.

The CUNY system comprises 11 senior colleges (places like Baruch and Hunter, which offer only bachelor’s degrees, as well as campuses like John Jay, which offer bachelor’s and associates) and six community colleges (like Hostos and Queensborough, offering only associate degrees). The senior colleges have selective admissions standards, and students needing any extensive remedial work must go to community colleges first. The community colleges have open admissions, but they also have standards—and students who don’t meet them must complete remedial courses before they can begin college work. CUNY’s community colleges require students to have a high school diploma or GED and to demonstrate basic proficiency in reading, writing and math. Scoring a 75 on the relevant regents exam or hitting 480 or above on the comparable SAT section can exempt a student from taking the CUNY placement tests. Students who fall short of the minimum required placement test score on reading or writing are required to take the remedial course—or courses—in either subject. At Bronx Community College, for example, a student could take a succession of three classes before getting to college-level math work. The first reviews elementary school math, heading up to eighth-grade material. The second is similar to ninth-grade algebra. The third covers intermediate algebra and trigonometry.

CUNY senior university dean for academic a airs John Mogulescu says the students coming into CUNY nowadays are less likely to need second-language instruction or remediation in reading or writing. Indeed, the number of students needing help in reading has fallen from 57 percent to 33 percent from 2000 to 2009. But math is still a “huge obstacle,” Mogulescu says. The percentage of high school students who enter CUNY needing remedial math instruction has barely budged, edging from 59 percent in 2000 to 56 percent in 2009.

Sharon Persinger, who has taught at Bronx Community College for 12 years, says the student population has grown younger, which has affected how seriously most students take school. “There’s more resistance to putting in the effort to learn it this time through,” she says.

Motivation is particularly difficult in the remedial classes. Iliyasu Kenchi, an East New York teen who had to take two remedial courses when he enrolled at City Tech last fall, says, “I thought it was a waste of time because by now I could have been doing my major. I could have been on the track team.” is disappointment leads to a significant dropout rate in many remedial courses. Students who don’t drop out sometimes fail the remedial courses— or pass the course but fall short when they retake the placement test to see if they are deemed ready for college-level work. “I did good, I passed,” recalls Kenchi of his remedial reading course. When he took the placement test again, he fell 2 points short. “That’s what kills me. It was close. It was really close.” Students who pass the remedial courses and satisfy requirements on their retaking of the placement tests actually graduate at the same rate as other CUNY students. Some even feel better prepared than peers thanks to the remedial work. Amy Morel, a student at City Tech who had to take a remedial math course twice, says, “It refreshed my memory a little, so when I actually took [college-level math], I’m actually doing way better than the rest of the students.”

But even those students pay a price, literally: Financial aid typically covers up to eight semesters of work, so students who aim to obtain a bachelor’s degree but are sidelined by remedial courses can end up paying out of pocket. “When it’s my two last semesters for my B.A. I’ll have to pay for classes,” says Morel, who is a mom and works at a laundromat. She’s not sure how she’ll swing that expense.

Students who avoid having to take remedial courses graduate from CUNY community colleges at a 34 percent rate over six years. Those who must take a single remedial course have a 24 percent rate; those who take two, a 21 percent rate; and those who take three graduate only 16 percent of the time. So remedial coursework is a major risk factor for leaving CUNY without a degree. For that reason, much about the remedial system is under scrutiny. It starts with the placement tests themselves. Some instructors don’t feel the scores are detailed enough to pin- point what a student does and doesn’t know. Others believe the tests are given when students might not be expecting them—perhaps on the day when they sign up for classes. And some feel the tests figures too prominently in how remedial teachers teach. Since professors are hoping to enable their students to pass the test, the exam can become the sole focus in class.

But course content is only one part of the issue. Remedial courses are often taught by adjuncts, who tend to be less accessible than full-time faculty. The pressure on CUNY community colleges to provide remedial courses has increased over the past decade, since the Giuliani administration forced changes in admissions criteria that prevented the senior CUNY colleges from offering extensive remedial instruction. That kicked the remedial population to the community colleges.

Along with those changes came a huge boost in undergraduate enrollment at CUNY, from 170,000 in 1999 to 270,000 today. Mogulescu says the CUNY system has added 1,200 faculty positions in the past decade, probably “more new faculty than any other university in the country.” Asked if the hiring has kept up with enrollment, he adds, “It hasn’t, clearly.”

While CUNY’s tests determine the need for remediation, and its courses are supposed to address that need, the skill shortages actually develop before students arrive at CUNY. Some new CUNY students are GED recipients. Others are high school grads who waited a few years to enter college. But more than half are straight out of public high schools. And the public high school curriculum is a concern. “The criteria for high school graduation bears no kind of relationship to college readiness,” says John Garvey, a former CUNY administrator who has published research on remediation and graduation rates. What’s more, “the bulk of the items, especially in math, on those placement tests are really from the middle-school curriculum,” Garvey continues. High school students are required to take only three years of math, and two can be satis ed by failing and repeating a single course. “That’s not the road to college,” says Garvey. “That’s the road to somewhere else.”

But classroom instruction is only one part of how high schools are supposed prepare students for college. High schools are also supposed to help students find colleges that are right for them, apply to them and be prepared for the college workload. There’s evidence that some city high school graduates lack that preparation.

About 10 years ago, Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Community Development Corp. began a program to help more kids gain access to college. “After we did that work for a few years, we knew we could get high school kids to college,” says staffer Andrea Soonachan. “But keeping them there was a different story.” So Cypress Hills launched an intensive retention program with New York City College of Technology, targeting students with poor academic records or life challenges (say, having children) for intensive case management. “People come to us with very little college knowledge. They might be the first in their family to go. Their counselor at school might have a 200-kid caseload. That’d be a low one.”

With all the college options facing New York students, a lack of college knowledge can mean a bad fit between student and post-secondary school. The problem cuts both ways, says Gregg Betheil, the DOE’s chief of postsecondary pathways and planning.

Some students get into programs that are more challenging than they can handle. But, he adds, “there’s been national research indicating students are actually undermatching to their college. For financial or other reasons, family circumstances, they sometimes go to a two-year college” when they could go to a more selective institution. “They ’re working down to their expectations.” While acknowledging that high schools have a responsibility to help students with that matching process, Betheil stresses that the city’s schools are trying—and that they’re not the only ones with a role to play. “We have many schools that are just doing a fantastic job,” he says. “At the same time there’s work that’s happening on the other side of the divide,” a reference to CUNY.

Even a student who finds the “right” school can have the wrong idea of what college work involves. One Cypress Hills client, Angus Fischer, was hell-bent on getting something more than a high school diploma. after being held back twice in lower grades, he caught up by graduating from high school in two and a half years. One year he took 14 classes and was at school for 11 hours a day. He applied to 12 colleges and ended up at City Tech. His first semester, he failed two courses and was put on academic probation. He pulled up his GPA the following semester, but not enough to avoid being kicked out of school.

“In college, it’s more on you. That’s what I found most interesting,” Fischer says. “At the beginning of the semester, they’d give you the course outline, and you’d have to follow it. I found it kind of more challenging in the sense that the professor doesn’t have enough time to sit there and explain things to you [individually].”

In 2008, CUNY and the DOE formed a task force on college readiness on which senior officials of both systems sit. The goal, says Betheil, is to “better align and calibrate a suite of standards organized around the college core” for both CUNY and high school teachers. Now the two institutions have a formal data-sharing agreement aimed at allowing instructors at both ends of the pipeline to tailor their curricula and programs to students’ needs.

Several initiatives are underway to improve CUNY graduation rates. The city is one of seven selected by the Gates Foundation for the Communities Learning in Partnership (CLIP) program, aimed at increasing community college graduation rates by focusing on math preparation. At Kingsborough, Queensborough and LaGuardia, experimental learning-communities programs have organized community college entrants into cohorts that move through classes together, offering each member the support of the group as well as better linkages between remedial and college-credit coursework. CUNY’s College Now program allows students to accumulate CUNY credits while still in high school. en there is ASAP, or Accelerated Study in Associates Programs, a pilot effort that CUNY started in the fall of 2007.

ASAP aims to reduce the pressures facing new students and the complexity of the typical college experience. Students are required to attend full time. They receive financial aid, free MetroCards and free textbooks. Their class schedules are consolidated, they are placed in smaller classes and they are organized into groups based on what major they planned to study. The program aimed to graduate 50 percent of the students in its first three years. After the first two years, 31 percent had graduated, while a comparison group of other CUNY students posted an 11.4 percent graduation rate for the same period. The question now is whether promising programs like ASAP can be made available to all the students who need them. “There are innovative, cutting-edge thinkers throughout the [CUNY] system. There are real pockets of great work going on,” says Cypress Hill’s Soonachan. “The next step is really figuring out how to scale them up.”

CUNY faces real challenges meeting all the needs of its increasing student body. Enrollment is growing so fast that this spring, for the first time, CUNY had to stop accepting applications for admissions, citing capacity concerns. Meanwhile, the hope for a new federal investment in community colleges has faded: Obama’s community college initiative died quietly in the hubbub over health care. The budget pressures lead some to wonder if CUNY will able to afford to expand programs like ASAP—which catered only to a pilot group of 1,300 students—for the thousands who need them. Mogulescu says CUNY’s answer to questions about scale is the new community college, due to open in 2012. The school’s entire design reflects an effort to improve retention and graduation. It will require full-time enrollment in the first year and offer a simplified—in other words, shorter— list of major programs to choose from. Admissions will still be open, but students will be required to show a little more commitment during the application process.

Some members of the CUNY community are troubled by the plan for the new college. Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents CUNY instructors, worries that requiring students to attend full time will exclude those who can’t afford to. (Mogulescu contends that most CUNY students already attend full time.) Bowen is also concerned that the new college will drain resources needed by existing schools, without creating enough new capacity to relieve the strains from high enrollment.

Some of the objections, however, are more on principal. “We are concerned about a college that has as its primary function to move people to graduation,” Bowen, “We’re all in favor of people moving swiftly, but the majors should not be chosen on what will allow a student to move through quickly.” In the minds of some teachers, graduation rates are an important goal but not the only one schools should focus on. “Some of this is philosophical. What is the role of the community college?” asks Persinger. “From the point of view of the educator, I’m not producing college degrees. I’m trying to help people gain skills, gain an understanding of the world that they didn’t have before.”

To some, this might sound like impractical, academic thumb-sucking. Are low-income kids supposed to spend their time and taxpayer-backed financial aid on learning for its own sake? Isn’t the point to get a degree as soon as possible and move on with life?

But maybe the two goals—improving the graduation rate on one hand and, on the other, teaching to educate and not just to graduate—aren’t mutually exclusive. They haven’t been for Fischer, who after leaving City Tech began his college career again at Kingsborough.

“It’s kind of going good now,” he says. “At City Tech, the professors were trying to get in the course work and prepare you to take the final. At Kingsborough, they speak about how they don’t just want to give you a piece of paper. They try to work with us as students, not machines.”