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The CUNY Revival

from the magazine

The CUNY Revival

Higher standards and civic and political support have rejuvenated a great New York institution. Spring 2016
New York

In 1999, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s task force on the City University of New York (CUNY) published “An Institution Adrift,” a study of the system’s failings. CUNY, the authors wrote, was “in a spiral of decline.” Noting the system’s low academic standards, declining enrollment, and failing remediation programs, they argued that CUNY was not “carrying out its academic responsibilities with the quality and consistency its vital mission deserves and requires.” But they also maintained that CUNY’s problems were fixable.

They were right—and CUNY’s fortunes have reversed. Through a combination of higher standards, smarter programs, and support from civic and political leaders, CUNY’s administrators have rejuvenated a once-moribund institution. In the last decade, graduation and enrollment rates as well as rates of transfer into CUNY have all increased dramatically. A spirit of optimism and innovation pervades the system.

Problems do persist, however. CUNY’s graduation rates lag national averages. The number of student-loan defaults, particularly at CUNY’s community colleges, remains stubbornly high. But with its continued commitment to standards, well-conceived remediation, and innovation, CUNY has good reason to feel confident about the future. If the system’s decades of crisis proved that drift is a choice, its last decade has shown that success can be a choice, as well.

New York’s state legislature created the CUNY system in 1961, integrating the City College of New York, Hunter College, and Brooklyn and Queens Colleges—all much older—as well as several two-year community colleges and a graduate school, into the new system. Some of the CUNY schools had long been havens for bright students denied admission to elite private colleges because of racial or ethnic quotas. In the early to mid-twentieth century, City College, in particular, nurtured a remarkable number of future cultural, political, and intellectual luminaries.

But within a decade of the formalization of the CUNY system, the seeds of decline were planted, when administrators adopted an open-admissions policy. (See “CUNY Could Be Great Again,” Winter 1998.) In part, federal and state financial incentives to admit poorer students motivated the decision, but student activism—what the task force called “policy by riot”—played an arguably more important role. In April 1969, protesters shut down City College’s South Campus to demand that the college’s racial composition match that of New York City’s public high schools. A wave of protests at CUNY schools followed, leading to campus shutdowns, clashes with police, and the burning of City’s College’s Great Hall. Deputy Chancellor Seymour H. Hyman, who witnessed the conflagration, remembered that “the only question in my mind was, ‘How can we save City College?’ And the only answer was, ‘Hell, let everybody in.’ ”

Open admissions severely damaged the CUNY system. In addition to erasing all community-college admissions requirements, the new policy removed such senior college admissions requirements as acquisition of Regents diplomas, completion of 11.5 credits in “required subjects,” and maintenance of minimum academic averages in the mid-1980s and 1990s. Any high school graduate with an academic average of 80 or who ranked in the top half of his class would now be eligible for CUNY’s senior colleges. Waves of unprepared new students flooded in; they performed poorly on assessment tests and required substantial remediation. By the time the CUNY task force published “An Institution Adrift,” only 1 percent of students at CUNY’s community colleges graduated within two years. Four-year graduation rates at the senior colleges had plummeted to between 6 percent and 7 percent; the CUNY six-year number was a paltry 30 percent. High-achieving students increasingly chose to apply elsewhere, and enrollment shrank. Many observers rightly considered CUNY a backwater.

Giuliani recruited former Baruch College president Matthew Goldstein—who had raised money effectively, hired more full-time faculty, and boosted admissions standards at the school—to implement the task force’s suggestions, even though Goldstein had already accepted the presidency of Adelphi University on Long Island. After a few months as Adelphi’s president, Goldstein saw a New York Observer article announcing his appointment as CUNY chancellor. “It was news to me,” he says. Torn between CUNY and Adelphi, he credits his ultimate decision to a CUNY official asking him what he wanted to do. He told her that he liked tackling “very complex problems” with “very smart people,” to which she replied: “CUNY has lots of smart people. And boy, do they have problems!” Goldstein resigned from Adelphi.

He quickly went to work raising CUNY’s standards. His first fight—what he calls “a battle royale”—was his successful attempt to devolve remedial education from CUNY’s senior colleges to its community colleges. The senior schools suffered from, in his words, “a variance of skill levels in the classrooms.” College-ready students sat in the same classes as students who were clearly unprepared; neither received appropriate instruction. CUNY’s board of trustees had authorized the change before Goldstein became chancellor, but opposition from CUNY’s union and faculty senate made it difficult to put into practice. Goldstein persevered.

Ending open admissions was an even tougher fight. Faculty and students charged that it would rid the system of minority students; faculty accused Goldstein of trying to “change the complexion of CUNY.” At a January 1999 public hearing for CUNY’s board of trustees, City College professor William Crain argued that the plan would “constitute an enormous setback for civil rights.” Student activists protested trustee meetings with signs decrying “Racists” and “Educational Apartheid.”

Again, Goldstein was undeterred. Because, he says, every parent and student wants a “value education,” he was confident that his reforms would attract more African-American and Hispanic students. Working with the New York State Board of Regents, he put an end to open admissions in CUNY’s 2000 Master Plan. Prospective students to CUNY senior colleges would now be evaluated based on their GPA, standardized test scores, and academic course work—in other words, their readiness for a rigorous college education. Entering students would be required to take new assessment tests in reading, writing, and math.

CUNY’s reforms didn’t stop at higher standards. The administration has invested ample resources in programs that attract high-achieving students, minimize remediation time, and boost graduation rates.

Goldstein came up with the idea of an honors college that would draw on CUNY’s best faculty and New York City’s rich cultural resources. The Macaulay Honors College opened in 2001, funded by a $30 million gift from philanthropists William and Linda Macaulay. Though the program has a physical space on the Upper West Side, its students are dispersed throughout CUNY’s eight senior colleges.

High school seniors can apply to be Macaulay students at six senior colleges. Applicants rank each college in order of preference, and each college accepts a different number of Macaulay students, ranging from Hunter’s 492 to John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s 43. Macaulay students enjoy amenities that include a full-tuition scholarship, a laptop, and a $7,500 “Opportunities Fund” that they can use toward research, travel, and internships. They also enjoy academic privileges, such as Macaulay-only academic seminars, preferential access to popular courses, and special advisement services. The Macaulay program is popular: 5,797 students applied in 2014, a 314 percent increase from the 1,398 applicants in 2001. To meet the demand, Macaulay has expanded its class size from 208 in 2001 to 539 in 2014; the program now enrolls 2,032 students.

As Goldstein hoped, Macaulay has attracted more high-achieving students to CUNY. From 2001 to 2014, the average SAT score of Macaulay students increased from 1264 to 1369, while the number of students enrolling from New York City’s top high schools has almost tripled. The honors college has clearly had a major impact on CUNY’s academic life. CUNY’s senior colleges have adapted Macaulay’s interdisciplinary core curriculum on New York, which focuses on Gotham’s arts, scientific community, demographics, and politics. Hostos Community College uses Macaulay’s science curriculum. Macaulay has won a $5 million grant from New York State to develop a new center for digital media with Hostos and Lehman College.

Macaulay students told me that the program’s (taxpayer-funded) benefits led them to choose CUNY over peer schools like New York University and Barnard. But they also value the academic opportunities. Ryan Merola graduated from Brooklyn College in 2007 as a member of Macaulay’s third class. He chose Macaulay because it was “the best financial deal I could get for college,” but he also says that Macaulay’s advisors helped him figure out “the right moves” for his career and that the program’s internship fund helped him develop valuable political connections. He now works as legislative director for a member of the state assembly. And Ryan’s advisors traveled to Missouri and Washington, D.C., for his Truman and Mitchell scholarship ceremonies. “You can’t put a price tag on that,” he says.

On the other end of the scale, Goldstein sought to fix the broken remediation system by creating CUNY Start, which offers intensive college preparation to students who perform poorly on reading, writing, and math assessment tests. The program (15–18 weeks), which costs $75, allows students to delay matriculation so that they can minimize their remedial work once in school. Students who fail all three tests enroll in a full-time, 25-hour-per-week program. Those who fail one or two of the tests can enroll in a part-time, 12-hour-per-week program. Students take “core instruction” classes at CUNY’s community colleges in the subjects for which they need remediation; afterward, they retake the assessment tests.

Start is CUNY’s effort at a “comprehensive reworking of remedial instruction,” says Donna Linderman, CUNY’s university dean for Student Success Initiatives. At a LaGuardia Community College Start class for students needing help in reading and writing, small groups of students sit together at tables while two teachers circulate the classroom. Motivational signs adorn the walls: one, “Classroom Guidelines,” urges students to “Be On Time, Raise Your Hand, Be Prepared, Dress Appropriately, Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Anything!”

Teachers seek to prepare students for a working world that runs on collaboration. “It’s rare to work in isolation,” says Deema Bayrakdar, director of LaGuardia’s Start program. Start trains students to function in an “environment where you agree and disagree with people.” The day’s first exercise is aimed at improving students’ vocabulary and contextual reading skills. The teachers provide sentences using vocabulary words and ask students to define the words using the sentences’ context. For “gesture,” the accompanying sentence reads: “When asked where the children were, she silently gestured in the direction of the beach.” Teachers then ask questions that require an understanding of the word, such as, “How could you gesture someone to be quiet?”

“If we’re doing our job well,” says Thomas, a teacher I observed, “students are taking over.” Start’s lesson plans aim to “get students to find the language to evaluate their own work.” To that end, the teachers press students to provide the most precise definitions possible. When a student defines “to monitor” as “to watch,” one teacher asks whether one could say that they “monitored my TV show.” The student acknowledges that it doesn’t sound right, and suggests “watch over” as a better definition. Later, when a student defines “plot summary” as “has the idea,” the teacher is dissatisfied, so the student suggests “the main idea—and details.” Pressed further, the student offers a satisfactory answer: “the facts of the story.”

From 2001 to 2014, the average SAT score of Macaulay Honors College students increased from 1264 to 1369.

Start now operates at eight CUNY colleges and enrolls 3,800 students. Diane, a 43-year-old from Trinidad and Tobago, discovered the program after enrolling in LaGuardia’s community-college courses. She switched into Start—which she says is “cheap and reasonable”—rather than pay for remedial classes. Jeff, who obtained his GED in 2005, thought that Start would help him overcome his “big gap in schooling.” Ahnyst wanted “something more” and saw Start, and eventually a college degree, as a means of jump-starting her singing career.

Some 68 percent of Start participants have failed all three CUNY assessment tests, and 31 percent have failed two—but 50 percent show proficiency in three subjects after completing the program, while 31 percent are proficient in two subjects and 14 percent are proficient in one. Start alumni register higher GPAs and better retention than non-Start students in degree programs. MDRC, the social-sciences research organization, is conducting a randomized control study of the program.

CUNY’s persistently low community-college graduation rates presented yet another challenge for Goldstein. His response: the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which launched in fall 2007 with funding from the city, state, and private donors. ASAP, according to Linderman, “bundles” existing CUNY programs that aim to improve community-college outcomes. Each student gets an advisor to help navigate academic and personal challenges. Students must assume a full-time course load—at least 12 credits each semester. The program recommends that students take summer and winter classes, and it offers course work in in-demand fields. ASAP students take their first-year classes together and attend a weekly advisory seminar. Students’ outside commitments to work and family make community-college retention a challenge, so ASAP offers courses mornings, afternoons, and evenings. To reduce students’ financial impediments, ASAP covers the difference between a student’s financial aid and the cost of attending college, offers funds for textbooks, and provides monthly MetroCards.

Esmeralda, a Queens native, wanted to attend college, but her parents couldn’t afford incidentals like textbooks and a MetroCard. ASAP, she says, was “a blessing.” Andres, who had completed the CUNY Start program, enrolled in ASAP because he didn’t want to “stress out about money or books.” ASAP’s financial considerations, not surprisingly, drew them in, but they also grew to appreciate the program’s many component parts—such as access to tutors and career advisors. Esmeralda started ASAP in remedial math classes, but the program gave her “the tutoring and focus I needed to go ahead with my career.” She now hopes to teach engineering. Yulibeth, who plans to pursue social work, was grateful for her advisor “because I can literally ask her anything.” The first in her family to attend college, Yulibeth says that ASAP has had a formative impact. “Now I know I want better things.”

Compared with non-ASAP students, those enrolled in the program have higher retention and graduation rates and complete a greater number of credits. Outside studies also report positive findings. An MDRC five-year random assignment study of ASAP found that the program improved enrollment, retention, and credit accumulation; in all three areas, ASAP students outperformed a control group. Additionally, Columbia economist Henry Levin has found that even though CUNY devotes ample resources to ASAP, the average cost for each three-year ASAP graduate is lower than that for comparison-group students.

ASAP alumni like Loukman Lamany testify to the program’s lasting impact. A native of Togo, Lamany moved to the U.S. in 2004 and chose CUNY for its “proximity” and ASAP because “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.” He praised his ASAP advisor, “who was always available to help,” and the ASAP seminar, which helped students develop their time-management skills. “It’s one thing to be motivated,” he says, “and another to have the tools and vocabulary to reinvent myself.” Lamany graduated from Bronx Community College in 2011 with an associate’s degree in business administration and from Baruch College in 2014 with a bachelor’s in management. He now works as a business development analyst.

CUNY’s decade and a half of ambitious reforms have proved fruitful. For starters, graduation numbers have rallied substantially. From 2003 to 2011, two-year graduation rates for students entering associate’s programs rose from 2.4 percent to 3.3 percent; from 2002 to 2009, four-year graduation rates for students who entered baccalaureate programs increased from 19.8 percent to 21.3 percent. African-American and Hispanic two- and four-year graduation rates have also improved noticeably in recent years. CUNY’s progress in this area stands out among New York’s four higher-education sectors (CUNY, SUNY, private nonprofit, and for-profit). At the associate’s level, CUNY’s improvement in graduation numbers for students entering from 2005 to 2010 exceeded every other sector’s. Its baccalaureate graduation-rate growth for students entering from 2002 to 2007 exceeded every sector but SUNY’s.

Enrollment trends are also looking strong. During 2003–13, overall enrollment grew 26.8 percent, while enrollment at senior colleges increased by 20.9 percent and at community colleges by 39 percent. During this period, transfer rates into CUNY and from CUNY associate to baccalaureate programs grew 36.1 percent and 32.8 percent, respectively. And the academic profile of CUNY’s entering class has also gotten much better. From 2000 to 2014, the average SAT score at CUNY’s most selective colleges increased 150 points; enrollment of students from New York City’s top high schools more than doubled.

Despite the predictions of Goldstein’s critics, minorities haven’t been shut out. From 2003 to 2013, African-American and Hispanic enrollment in CUNY’s senior colleges grew about 5 percent and 38 percent, respectively, while their enrollment in CUNY’s community colleges grew about 18 percent and 76 percent. Moreover, in 2010, the most recent year for which census data are available, African-American students were overrepresented in CUNY: African-Americans made up 27 percent of CUNY’s student body, compared with 22.8 percent of New York City residents. Hispanics, whose share of the CUNY population went up during this time, constituted 28.6 percent of the city’s population and 29 percent of CUNY’s student body. (Though the percentage of African-American students enrolling in the CUNY system overall dipped between 2000 and 2010, this decline tracks the simultaneous decrease of African-Americans as a percentage of New York City’s population.)

CUNY’s experience with ending open admissions demonstrates that raising standards needn’t come at the expense of accessibility—or student success.

While CUNY’s last decade offers much to cheer about, worrying trends persist. Graduation rates remain low, relative to national averages. In 2012, CUNY’s six-year bachelor’s graduation rate was 46.7 percent, compared with 59 percent nationally, while its three-year associate’s graduation rate of 10 percent compares poorly with 31 percent nationally. Only a small percentage of CUNY students hold student loans, and loan defaults at most CUNY senior colleges run below the national average, but default rates at many CUNY community colleges are not below average.

CUNY officials explain these dispiriting figures by pointing to students’ outside commitments. “I grew up poor,” Matthew Goldstein says, “but I didn’t have to work like a lot of these kids, who work the equivalent of full-time jobs.” He’s pessimistic that CUNY’s outcomes will ever match those of high-quality private schools and notes that “unless societal circumstances change, I don’t see a magic bullet that will improve graduation rates.” Bayrakdar, the CUNY Start administrator at LaGuardia, agreed. The “life balance is really hard,” she says, because students “are juggling multiple factors like work, school, and families.” Students echoed these concerns. Esmeralda said that her fellow students struggle because “if you’re in organizations, a job, and school, you have no time for yourself.” Yulibeth said that when her friends don’t graduate from community college, it’s because they’re working, caring for children, or supporting parents who no longer work. They “grow up too fast,” she says.

CUNY programs addressing the challenge of school-life balance could help. Chancellor J. B. Milliken, who assumed the post in June 2014, aims to make initiatives like Start and ASAP “more broadly available.” To that end, CUNY is opening the first summer Start program at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and administrators have discussed offering the program to high school seniors. Since students attending senior colleges face challenges similar to those of their peers at community colleges, CUNY hopes to make ASAP available to them, too. “Expanding ASAP to every CUNY college would be terrific,” Linderman says.

To prepare students for postgraduation success, CUNY should make greater efforts to introduce students to the job market and work skills, as New York’s for-profit colleges have done. (See “A Gateway to the Working World,” Spring 2015.) Milliken says that he’s interested in promoting “public-private partnerships,” and he hopes to create internship and mentoring experiences with technology and financial industries, individual businesses, and research organizations.

Most important, CUNY must not budge on standards. The pressure to ease up is constant, thanks to media stories depicting the demise of open admissions as disastrous for minority students. CUNY’s calamitous standards-free era—and its successful last decade—proves exactly the opposite. Thankfully, Chancellor Milliken said that admissions requirements remain “quite important to the success of CUNY,” and senior officials are confident that he won’t reverse course. If standards and a spirit of innovation endure, CUNY’s future looks bright.

Students at Hunter College in Manhattan (DAVID M GROSSMAN/THE IMAGE WORKS)

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