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.

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.

Academic advisers also help the students learn how to maximize their time and finances at the school. “Students who come to BMCC for five years or six years, they use up their grant money, they use up their TAP money to the point where they want to go to a four-year college and the money is all gone,” says Allen. Whereas many community-college students may find it easy to lose focus or go adrift in their studies, he says, “In ASAP, we lay out the tracks for them. You’re not here for five years, taking courses you don’t need.”

ASAP’s demands aren’t for the weak-hearted. Even a promising student can crumble under the pressure of work, a 12-credit schedule, and the program’s requirement that all ASAP students maintain a 2.5 grade-point average. “After my first semester, I was so tired I thought about not going back,” says Wheeler. “It’s kind of like sink or swim.” School would be easier if he could trim back his work schedule, but that’s not an option: Even with a full-time job, he estimates that about three-quarters of his income goes to food and rent, leaving him little left over for what he and his daughter need. “I mean need, not to buy an iPod Touch or a PSP or an Xbox or a plasma screen,” he laughs. “There’s no way to scale it back.”

Nor do the professors pull any punches for ASAP students. “The role is a bit of a wake-up call,” says Gottfried. “If you’re interested in a four-year college or graduate school, you need to put in the hours.” Asked about the academic demands, Wheeler cites his accounting professor as a major motivator. “I checked him out on Rate My Professor once—he had all negative reviews from his ex-students,” he says. ” ‘Too tough,’ they all complained. That’s how you know he’s good.”

ASAP administrators take pains to anticipate and manage the students’ pressures, says Wheeler. “I missed one class last semester, and my professor was so concerned he contacted my adviser, and my adviser contacted me and was like, ‘Is everything all right?'” he says. “The adviser basically takes care of everything for you. He registers you for classes, so you don’t actually have to take time out of work or anything like that.” Allen insists on as close a relationship as possible with his 125 advisees. “You don’t even need to show me the grades. I can go down the list of names and I could tell you how they’re doing,” he says. “The ones that are doing C work but could be doing A work, they’ve got people riding them.”

That kind of guidance doesn’t come cheap: According to Gottfried, $6.5 million has been doled out to the program so far, with another $13 million set aside for the next two years. That translates to more than $5,000 for each of ASAP’s 1,132 students citywide—more than what many community colleges can spend on their pupils, but considerably less than what most four-year colleges and even some grade schools spend, says Jacobs. (The city’s Department of Education reported that it will spend a similar amount this year on educational-related expenses per student in its K-12 schools—an average of $4,816.) It’s only a pilot program, financed for two more years, but Mayor Bloomberg has said he might expand it if it proves successful. “We’re obviously interested in replication,” says Gottfried.

As things stand, the program mostly flies under other students’ radar, except for a few instances where ASAP students stand out. “You get a couple of stares in the bookstore, because we get our own separate line and there’s never any exchange of money,” says Wheeler. But it would be hard for CUNY to implement a broader, more egalitarian program even if it wanted to, says Jacobs, given how few community-college students can meet ASAP’s stringent entry standards. “How do you develop programs to fit the needs of very heterogeneous students?” he wonders.

Not even Wheeler is completely sold on the program’s pace and goals, which he says occasionally make it feel more like training than education. “Sometimes it does feel like I’m rushing through ASAP,” he says. “Sometimes I wish we could get more in-depth in a class or subject,” rather than keeping focused solely on graduation requirements. But he has no qualms about his ultimate commitment to ASAP’s hectic schedule and the crimp it puts in his social life.

“I just think to myself,” he says, “What would I do on Friday night, really?”