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Achieving Student Success in Community Colleges

By Jay Hershenson

In today’s highly competitive global economy, community college students must earn valued degrees as quickly and assuredly as possible.  Through academic advisement and financial aid support, block class and summer bridge programs, and greater emphasis on study skills, we can better assist incoming freshmen to achieve course and degree completion.

I know something about this, because I started my own higher education at Queensborough Community College, going to school at night. During the day I operated a conveyor belt in the receiving department at a now-defunct department store called Alexander’s. I had no plans to make that particular job my lifetime work.

My community college experience can be summed up in one word — solitary. I went to my classes alone. I studied alone. I rode the bus alone. I didn’t know many other students. There was no orientation program. There was little advisement at night. The only one who said anything when I missed a couple of nights in a row was the Q27 bus driver.

Whenever challenges arose, I had to figure out how to deal with them alone. The quality of my Queensborough Community College education was superb particularly because of the high quality of the faculty.

I transferred to Queens College and earned two degrees as an undergraduate and graduate student. But the lessons I learned about the minuses of a solitary sense of experience remained with me.

That is why I am so excited, and very impressed by two CUNY programs inextricably linked: Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) and the New Community College at CUNY.

We all know how few urban community college students earn a degree within three years — in some parts of the country 16 percent, other parts less than 25 percent.

That clearly isn’t acceptable.

In 2007, Chancellor Goldstein took on this challenge and asked Mayor Bloomberg to support a new initiative to significantly raise graduation rates. The Chancellor established a goal of graduating half of ASAP’s students within three years. CUNY was determined to remove barriers to full-time study, build student resiliency and do everything we could to support degree completion. We offered financial incentives for full-time study. If there was a gap between the financial aid and the cost of tuition and fees, we waived it.

Students received free monthly MetroCards for subway and bus fare, along with free books.

By requiring students to take 12 credits a semester, they were eligible for full financial aid and positioned for graduation within three years.

ASAP grouped students in cohorts based on a limited number of majors — at most six at any campus. They took most classes in consolidated blocks, allowing them to balance school, work and domestic responsibilities.

Some classes were conducted with only other ASAP students, others were with the general college population, but none had more than 25 students.

Students in the first cohort were required to overcome any developmental needs in the summer before admission, and about a third did so. So when they were ready to start credit-bearing courses, they were all up to speed.

There was regular contact with faculty and advisors. Students who needed jobs, job skills and career planning were helped. There were arts and cultural programs, student leadership training and internships.

All of the students at all six participating colleges had access to “SingleStopUSA” on campus to help them obtain benefits, financial counseling, legal services, tax refunds, and so on. If you want SingleStopUSA on your campus, check out their website. Our community college students overall have accessed over $60 million in aid with the help of SingleStop.

Here’s the bottom line: Three years later, fully 55 percent of the 1,100 initial ASAP students had earned an associate degree. That’s more than twice the 24.7 percent who graduated in a comparison group. We had exceeded the chancellor’s ambitious goal!

Not content with that, CUNY considered whether ASAP would work for students with developmental problems during the program, as opposed to the summer before. In 2009, CUNY recruited a second cohort comprised primarily of low-income students who needed some remedial coursework in reading, writing and math.

Their three-year graduation rate projected through August 2012 is the same — 55 percent — compared to 22.3 percent in a comparison group. So ASAP worked for students, regardless of academic proficiency at time of entry.

Overall, 63 percent of ASAP students graduate, transfer to a baccalaureate program or both within three years, compared to 44 percent of a comparison group.

CUNY sought an independent examination from noted researcher Henry Levin, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University who heads the Teachers College Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education.

Dr. Levin concluded that ASAP is far more effective and costs less per graduate than the traditional path to an associate degree: “ASAP can increase considerably the number of CUNY community college graduates while actually reducing costs.”

Chancellor Goldstein envisioned creating a new college that would raise graduation rates for CUNY’s general population. It took four years of planning by an incredible team from CUNY headquarters with the result of CUNY’s first new community college in 40 years. This fall we opened the doors to what — with great creativity — we call the New Community College.

The New Community College boasts an innovative, issue-based and skill-intensive program that weaves remedial assistance into courses and counseling.

What’s different? As at all CUNY colleges, the New Community College accepts anyone with a high school diploma or the equivalent. Applicants were obliged to attend an information session, followed by a half-hour one-on-one meeting with faculty or staff. Students have to attend full time the first year, since that alone boosts graduation rates. Students also take classes in either a morning or an afternoon block, and attend a summer orientation and a 12-day academic-preparation program in August that we call the Summer Bridge.

The Summer Bridge introduces students to college reading, writing and mathematics. They do a mini-project to practice working with peers. They create an electronic portfolio for their college work. They begin field experiences, making New York City an extended classroom. Beyond that, the Summer Bridge encourages self-exploration and community building. We want students to form the peer support networks that we know can help them make it through trying times — the support I wish I’d had. Although it’s not a requirement, the college’s financial aid director vowed that by graduation, every student would have a checking account and know how to manage their money.

The New Community College divided each semester into 12-week and 6-week sessions. Students who mastered the coursework in the 12-week session can take on new work in the second. Those who need more time to master the work can do so in the 6-week session. That’s one way we build in remedial help. (Some of our other community colleges use this model, too.)

The New Community College attracted 855 prospective students. Ultimately, 322 enrolled in our first class. They show the same diversity as our other colleges — 35 percent Latino, 27 percent African-American, 21 percent white, 11 percent Asian, with the remaining 6 percent declining to identify ethnicity. They’re almost evenly split among men and women, and come from across the city.

We recruited an enthusiastic faculty and staff from both inside and outside CUNY. CUNY recruited President Scott Evenbeck, a psychologist who was founding dean of University College at the public Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

At the convocation that inaugurated the New Community College, Chancellor Goldstein presented Mayor Bloomberg with the rarely awarded Chancellor’s Medal for his years of support for this project. Speaking at the event, held at the New York Public Library, across from the college, the mayor said, “I think this school has the potential to be a game-changing model for community colleges across the country.

The names of the two lions outside the New York Public Library in Manhattan are Fortitude and Patience. We will need both at our side as the reform of community college education moves forward in the years ahead. #

Jay Hershenson is the senior vice chancellor for university relations and secretary of the board of trustees at the City University of New York.



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