For Jaime Alvarado, the decision to enroll in college at age 39 was daunting. The problem wasn’t just his insecurity about whether, after more than 20 years away from a classroom, he’d be able to solve for y in his pre-algebra class. It was the maze of college life and its unfamiliar language that left the former union organizer, now a cab driver, in a daze. What the heck was a bursar, anyway?
“There was just so much information flowing around,” Alvarado recalls. “It was hard for me to absorb.”
Fortunately, Alvarado was enrolled in Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, at LaGuardia Community College. The program’s main goal is to fast-track its students to a cap and gown. Nationally, the urban community college’s three-year graduation rate is only 16 percent. Last June, three years after ASAP’s inception, 55 percent of its initial 2007 cohort of 1,132 students had received associate’s degrees.
ASAP, which is offered at all six City University of New York community colleges, provides students with an adviser who guides them through the intricacies of college life. “My adviser helped me break it down piece by piece,” says Alvarado. “She helped me with everything from choosing courses to finding the cafeteria.”
Many students need the help that Alvarado gets, but they simply don’t qualify for the program. ASAP students must agree to attend full-time in the first year and they must be college-ready, meaning that they don’t need more than two remedial courses. Alvarado needed only one—in math—so the program scooped him up. But what happens to the more typical community college student, who often arrives unprepared for college-level work?
CUNY’s answer is to open a new community college in the summer of 2012, modeled on ASAP and built with the goal of increasing college graduation rates for a wider range of students. Initially situated across from Bryant Park, in a building that formerly housed the secretarial school Katharine Gibbs, the new school will eventually enroll up to 5,000 students in a new building at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at 59th Street and Tenth Avenue. Students will need only a high school diploma or a GED to apply. Once enrolled, they will benefit from some of the same services that ASAP students enjoy, such as one-on-one advising and free tutoring.
CUNY is betting that the closer an eye it keeps on students, the quicker it will hand them diplomas. Right now, 11 countries have a higher percentage of college graduates than the United States (which a decade ago was first). President Barack Obama’s call for the U.S. to retake the lead by 2020 has stirred a debate around the purpose of community colleges. Should they train students for jobs, or prepare students to pursue a four-year degree?
The new CUNY community college planners think that they can, with a lot of student hand-holding, do both. However, some CUNY faculty remain skeptical of a curriculum whose main goal, they say, is to produce quick diplomas.
The new CUNY community college doesn’t offer much choice, but that is part of the plan. The college will offer only eight majors—business administration, information technology, energy services management, environmental science, health information technology, human services, liberal arts and sciences, and urban studies—most chosen for their potential to land students a job after graduating. Faculty members will be expected to link students to jobs and internships in the students’ career fields. The curriculum is also streamlined, with remedial work integrated into regular courses.
Sandi Cooper, a history professor at the College of Staten Island and chair of CUNY’s Faculty Senate, worries that the new school’s curriculum is not as rigorous as those of other colleges, noting that most community colleges require two years of a language, two years of lab science, one year of math, as well as courses covering history and literature.
“The core curriculum for the new college barely reflects any of those standards,” she says. “We don’t want to mislead students into thinking that when they finish a two-year degree, they are qualified to move on to a senior college, unless they are. I call that fraud. We worry that what’s going to be offered these students, while it may be wonderful in terms of support services, is pretty thin in terms of content.”
Particularly controversial is the requirement that applicants submit to an interview. The purpose, according to John Mogulescu, the CUNY dean in charge of developing the new college, is to inform students about the intricacies of the college—not weed them out. Cooper is skeptical, saying it violates CUNY’s tradition of open admissions: “The business of an interview is obviously an effort to ensure an enrollment of students who are likely to finish.”
Students at the new college will also be required to attend full-time, at least for the first year, and spend at least 22 hours per week on campus. Nationally, about 60 percent of community college students are part-timers; about 87 percent of CUNY students initially enroll full-time, though the percentage drops dramatically in students’ second and third years.
“It’s better to encourage students to go full-time if they can,” says Thomas Bailey, director of an independent research consortium called the Community College Research Center, who served on the new college’s planning committee. “If you’re going to take years to finish, there’s just that much more time for life to get in the way. A million things could happen. You could lose your job or you could get a new job. You might get married or have a baby. If you could just get kids to bite the bullet and go full-time and get it over with, chances are they’ll finish.”
The problem is that community college students may have full-time jobs and families to care for. Part-time enrollment might work best for these students, but that means they can’t partake of the needed services that the new college will offer.
“If a student has not had the advantages of the middle class and grew up not going to museums, not going abroad, working, coming sometimes from busted-up families, the idea that they might need more time to finish strikes me as reasonable,” says Cooper. “But I can’t get that across to the efficiency experts.”
The planning committee hopes that one-on-one personal advisement every step of the way will help compensate for this, ensuring that if students get off track, their advisers will swiftly set them straight. Advisers will also work together with faculty on everything from evaluating learning disabilities to determining if students need financial aid.
For now, the new community college has the funds to support its efforts to increase graduation rates. In addition to CUNY funds, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has allocated $8.9 million toward the new community college in this year’s city budget; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given $1.1 million, and other donors smaller amounts. Mayor Bloomberg’s Center for Economic Opportunity, which funds ASAP, will provide money for advisement services, while CUNY will seek private funds for tuition assistance, free textbooks, and MetroCards.
These services are too costly to provide at most community colleges, says George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. (He cites a College Board report that found many community college students are eligible for federal financial aid, but never apply for it, because support staff aren’t available to advise them.)
Those who participated in the planning stressed that the new college design and curriculum are based on sound research. They say they listened to input from faculty, community-based organizations, students, experts in curriculum-planning, among many others.
Not so, says Lenore Beaky, an English professor at LaGuardia Community College, who says that faculty were only asked to participate in cursory ways. “The new college is an insult to our students,” says Beaky. “It treats them as if they are children who need to be protected from choice and chance.”
“This is very unusual and ambitious,” says Bailey of the Community College Research Center. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s try something new and different, rather than just tinker around the edges.’ When you’re working with an established institution, it has its culture and its people in place. That makes it much more difficult to bring about radical change. So if you’re trying to create a new type of school, it’s better to build it from the ground up with people who have been hired for that specific purpose.”
For their part, the planners see the new community college as a work in progress. “Let’s look at what works,” says Lisa Hale Rose, an assistant professor of human services at the Borough of Manhattan Community College who was involved in the development of the new college. “Let’s assess and measure it. And if it doesn’t work, let’s change it.”