CUNY's Community Colleges Give Stalled Students a Push

Nathaniel Wheeler, a 27-year-old Bushwick resident, recalls the day two years ago when he first envisioned the life that he wanted for himself. After a stint in the Air Force, where he worked in procurement, Wheeler was marking time, flitting between apartments and jobs, when a temporary gig at a Long Island bank offered a glimpse of his potentialfuture. "The vice president's office was 10 feet from me," he says. "I was like, 'Man, that's the way of life I want to live.'"

But it was also a life that required a college degree, and Wheeler needed to keep working to support himself and his

six-year-old daughter, who's currently living with her mother in Arizona. So since September, after putting in a full week's work at the Macy's accounting office in Manhattan, he's spent his Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays running a gauntlet of courses at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He's set to graduate next January with an associate's degree in business, two years after his first trek to the campus.

BMCC's Estefani Ulerio (left) is one of 1,132 students getting extra aid—and stepped-up academics—as part of CUNY ASAP. Art professor Patricia Genova (top) addresses one of the inaugural ASAP classes at BMCC.
Willie Davis/Veras
BMCC's Estefani Ulerio (left) is one of 1,132 students getting extra aid—and stepped-up academics—as part of CUNY ASAP. Art professor Patricia Genova (top) addresses one of the inaugural ASAP classes at BMCC.
Willie Davis/Veras



WHAT: A city-subsidized anti-poverty program to help qualifying students earn an associate's degree and a job as quickly as possible.

WHERE: BMCC, Bronx, Hostos, Kingsborough, LaGuardia, and Queensborough community colleges.

QUALIFICATIONS: Be a New York resident with fewer than 12 college credits; meet CUNY standards in reading, writing, and math (480 minimum on SAT math and critical reading; 75 or higher on math and English Regents exams); graduate in three years or less; meet a weekly work requirement.

benefits: Block scheduling; customized advising and tutoring; career services; free tuition, books, and travel.


Wheeler sounds like a typical community-college success story, but those stories are rarer than most New Yorkers might expect. A Columbia University study in 2005 estimated that less than a quarter of all community-college students nationwide earn degrees within three years of enrolling. Most never finish at all. They are typically an older bunch than their four-year-college peers, weighed down with real-life concerns that the average college freshman can't fathom. "Going to school and having dependents is an entirely different experience, with different challenges, than going off to Princeton or the University of Michigan at 18," says Dr. James Jacobs, a community-college expert at Columbia's Teachers College.

"The barriers go way beyond academic preparedness," agrees CUNY administrator Frances Gottfried. "Family, work, whatever you have—especially family—comes in between." Under that kind of pressure, even the smartest community-college students can get bogged down, forced to string out their studies for years or to drop out altogether.

To aid disadvantaged students like Wheeler, Gottfried helped spearhead a new program at CUNY's six community colleges called Accelerated Study in Associated Programs, or CUNY ASAP for short. The first ASAP class of 1,132 students spread across the six schools is about to complete its inaugural year, and while questions remain about the program and its ultimate effectiveness, it's gaining attention for its novel approach.

ASAP's chief strategy, according to interviews with administrators and staff, is to put the "community" back in community college, focusing on intense, sustained guidance from day one to provide the kind of focused attention one might expect at a traditional small four-year college. Students are grouped into cohorts and assigned to class schedules compressed into discrete blocks, both to accommodate diverse schedules and to foster a sense of camaraderie among classmates. Advisors watch the students like hawks, helping them find jobs and navigate their course schedules. Tutors hover in nearly every classroom. One tutor is "always there, in the back of my accounting class, but I haven't needed her yet," says Wheeler. "There are elements of this program that exist at CUNY and other community colleges around the country," Gottfried says, "but we believe we have the only program that brings them together."

Most significantly, ASAP offers a whopper of a financial-aid package: All expenses are paid, from books and tuition down to child care and monthly MetroCards. The MetroCard subsidy in particular has "turned out to be major" for ASAP students, says Gottfried. Christopher Allen, an ASAP academic advisor at BMCC, says that when the MTA made its latest grab for more revenue, his students were able to remain oblivious. "They were all like, 'What rate hike?' " he says.

Bankrolled through the mayor's new Center for Economic Opportunity, which oversees the city's 41 new anti-poverty initiatives, ASAP is open to students of all ages, but it imposes steep admission requirements: They must commit to taking 12 credits per semester while continuing to work; before beginning coursework they need to meet CUNY standards for reading, writing, and math proficiency, which can be satisfied with qualifying SAT or Regents test scores; and they're expected to graduate within three years of enrolling. "No one's taking remedial work in this program," says Gottfried.

It's this exclusivity that has led some to question the significance of ASAP's impact. While praising the program's creation as a step forward, Jacobs cautions that many community-college candidates need academic remediation, making them ineligible for ASAP. "It sounds like these are pretty well-prepared people compared to many who are already in the CUNY system," he says, noting that "even the most willing low-income students often are totally unprepared to do college-level work." CUNY administrators, for their part, bristle at the idea that they're cherry-picking ASAP candidates. "This is not an honors program," says Gottfried. Wheeler agrees: "It's really just a test of your work ethic. I don't think it bars anybody."

School by itself, of course, can't keep a student out of poverty without a paying job. What CUNY ASAP does, though, is enable students to stay afloat at work while churning through their degree requirements. All ASAP enrollees are assigned "job developers" who can help them find jobs that are more relevant to the student's course of study or that conform more easily to their preferred schedules, says Gottfried. "A first-semester student might have a 15- to 20-hour-a-week job at, say, Barnes & Noble. As they move on in the program, the job developers can help place them in a part-time job that's more relevant to their major." That's how Wheeler snagged his finance job at Macy's.

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