Just over 71 percent of full-time, first-time freshmen in associate programs at CUNY colleges do not graduate with a degree after six years, according to data revealed at a recent hearing of the City Council Committee on Higher Education.
Less than half of all students earn a baccalaureate degree in the same time period, with only 22 percent graduating within four years, a rate considerably lower than the national average.
Amidst a surge in enrollment and a growing need for advanced degrees, with six out of every 10 jobs requiring at least some post-secondary education, city universities and community colleges struggle to retain students. About two-thirds of students in associate programs stay in school after their first year, and half were enrolled after their second, though only 3.1 percent of these students had earned a degree in that time.
Queens community colleges do not fare any better than city averages. Only 28.4 percent of students at Queensborough and 27.8 percent at LaGuardia graduate with an associate degree in six years, according to the most recent report by the CUNY Office of Institutional Research.
The need for remedial classes for entering students unprepared for college and a lack of support services were prominent issues cited at the hearing, chaired by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan).
“I can report that CUNY is at the forefront of community college education,” said Eduardo Marti, CUNY’s vice chancellor for community colleges and the former president of Queensborough, according to minutes of the hearing provided by Rodriguez’s office. “But there is no comfort in being the leader when more than seven out of 10 freshmen entering CUNY’s associate degree programs need some remedial instruction.
“There is no comfort in being the leader when the failure rate in remedial courses often exceeds 50 percent,” he continued, “and when too many students never emerge from the remedial sequences to which they have been assigned.”
There are a number of CUNY-wide programs aimed at increasing high school students’ preparedness for college, which is often insufficient due to a lack of alignment between high school Regents and CUNY assessment test standards. But those programs can only reach a small percentage of students entering colleges. Students from the College Discovery program, a state-funded six-week summer curriculum aimed at those who otherwise would not go to college, make up only 4.6 percent of entering freshmen at Queensborough and 7.6 percent at LaGuardia.
Consistent academic advising and other support services were also found to be lacking, especially for the type of student enrolled in a community college. Almost half of those enrolled at both LaGuardia and Queensborough are first-generation college students often inexperienced in negotiating the bureaucracy of college requirements. Many were born outside of the U.S. and are not native English speakers. A good number are over 25 years old, attend part-time or have returned to school after time in the workforce.
“There is an increasing national awareness that open admission policy without extraordinary support is a revolving door rather than a pathway to success,” said Marti.
Financial counseling and childcare support are equally important to retaining and graduating students, cited researchers at the hearing. A majority of students at LaGuardia and Queensborough report household incomes of less than $40,000 per year, and more than 10 percent of students at both schools are supporting children as well. One researcher recommended expanding childcare services on campus, which would provide relevant work-study opportunities to early childhood students as well as much-needed support to student-parents. Thirty-eight percent of LaGuardia student-parents and 59 percent of those at Queensborough pay for off-campus childcare, and the state just cut $750,000 in childcare funding for CUNYs.
“Many of our students are often unaware of the benefits to which they are entitled,” said Regina Peruggi, president of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. Kingsborough recently consolidated its academic and personal counseling services by opening a branch of Single Stop USA, a program aimed to provide students with one entry point to public assistance benefits, childcare services, and tax refunds. Ninety-eight percent of students counseled in the fall 2009 semester were still enrolled in the spring, an early indication of the success of the initiative.
Laura Silverman, director of academic advising at Queens College, agrees with the importance of centralizing services for a diverse student body. Queens College has stood out among CUNY colleges and received national recognition for its retention and graduation rates, due in part to collaboration between departments creating concise education pathways for students. “Its really about changing who you are and making it work for [the students],” she said. Silverman now leads a team of advisors who coordinate degree requirements in order to eliminate confusion, and their offices are open seven days and three nights a week to accomodate student schedules.
The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, initiated in 2007 as pilot programs at all six community colleges, have taken a similar approach to addressing student barriers. Students enrolled in the programs are required to attend full-time, take key courses in block schedules to develop strong support networks, and attend bi-monthly advisor meetings. They receive some financial support, including tuition waivers, free monthly Metrocards, and the ability to rent textbooks at no cost. 55 percent of the first cohort graduated in three years, compared to 24 percent of an academically comparative group of students, and the graduation rate has remained consistently above 50 percent in subsequent years.
“The advisor is key,” Bernard Polnariev, ASAP director at LaGuardia Community College, said in a recent interview. “They really bend over backward to get [students] the resources that they need to stay on track.”
The ASAP program at LaGuardia has received funding for two more years and is part of an ongoing study on its success, but Polnariev says there are no plans for a major expansion to reach more students: “Our real goal right now is to keep the students we do have on for graduation.”
“It is our belief that every student who comes to CUNY wants to complete their goals,” said Marti. “It is our belief that we must provide every student with our best possible support to enable them to succeed.”