More Students Means New Challenges

Immersed in Research: More than 200 students attended this year's Graduate Center conference for the University's Pipeline program, which encourages and prepares research-oriented students for grad school.
More students are coming to The City University of New York - and staying - than at any point in its 163-year history.

Soaring admissions, a remarkable 77.4 percent surge of transfer students into the University, a dramatic increase in student retention rates and other benefits of several years of reforms instituted during the past decade are driving University enrollment gains.

The burgeoning, and challenging, influx of students - including high achievers, suburbanites, community college students and career changers - resoundingly confirms that strengthened standards, expanded academic programs and the University's reputation for academic quality and value are not only attracting more students than ever in a tough, competitive economy, but keeping them at CUNY.

Transfer applications have risen by 77.4 percent for students from non-CUNY colleges, public and private. As of early spring, 16,137 students had applied for transfer to the University, compared with 9,093 for the same period in 2009.

The University is also retaining its students in greater numbers. In the years since higher academic standards were adopted for baccalaureate programs, the one-year retention rate for first-time freshmen has risen nearly five percent at five senior colleges - Baruch, Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens. "Retention is starting to go up very, very dramatically at the University and it is very much a tribute to the reforms that this University has taken on in the past few years," Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said in his report to the Board of Trustees. "Obviously," he added, "once retention is up very significantly, we will see graduation rates increasing right behind them."

With fewer students leaving and more likely to stay to complete their degrees, the University is serving more students, and more high academic achievers, than at any point its 163-year history. Applications from high academic achievers were up by more than 12 percent, and there was a very significant increase in applicants who graduated from high school earlier than this year indicating that prior-year graduates, presumably including many seeking new careers, are looking to return to college.

In addition, newly expanded summer and winter sessions are seeing 15- to 20-percent increases as students seek to stay on track academically. Since 1999, senior college enrollment overall has risen 28 percent and community college enrollment is up 45 percent. Fall 2009's record 259,507 shattered previous records of the late-1960s Open Admissions era.

Transfer students from private colleges are coming in highest numbers from St. John's University, Touro College, New York University, Monroe College, Bard College, Pace University, New York Institute of Technology and ASA Institute. The transfer applications from students at community colleges are coming in highest numbers from Nassau Community College, Suffolk County Community College, Westchester Community College, Rockland Community College and Orange County Community College. Suburban applications are up, with the highest increases from suburban community colleges, followed closely by SUNY Stony Brook.

With so many students racing to CUNY, and all other trends pointing to a continuation of rising enrollments, the University is also turning its attention to the flip side of success: making sure that campus resources are not strained by the explosion of students and that academic quality is maintained. Chancellor Goldstein welcomed the record enrollments, which he attributed "largely to the burnishing of the University's reputation among colleges and universities," as well as to "people coming to shore up their skills in a very, very difficult economy." But in remarks to the Trustees on Feb. 23, he expressed concern that "we will be able to maintain the level of academic experience our students deserve to receive." His administration, he said, was "monitoring our campus activities very closely," working with the college presidents on enrollment and hiring decisions to make sure academic resources and student services are maintained.

"We want to make sure that we make this University available to students who want to learn, but we don't want to dilute the experience," Goldstein said. "It's a delicate task. . . . but one that we will continue to take, obviously, very seriously."

That balancing act is likely to continue as more students flock to CUNY's doors, more surge through and more stay in the system. Interest in the community colleges, already stretching to their limits to accommodate their highest enrollments in history, is up dramatically. The number of students whose first choice is a community college soared 75 percent compared with the same point last year, according to the latest data.

Retention of motivated, high-achieving community college students is very much on the University's agenda, and there have been moves to identify such students and offer more opportunities for them at CUNY. An example is the CUNY Pipeline program, which encourages and prepares research-oriented students for graduate school. The program's conference in February included, for the first time, selected community college students who presented and discussed their own sophisticated research projects and attended a variety of workshops concerned with preparing and acclimating them to graduate school.

CUNY Pipeline Coordinator Brenda Henry-Offor noted that on a visit to Queensborough Community College last year, "I was surprised to see the level of [student] research. It was just astounding. . . . These students can go on to graduate programs and be anything they want."

Queensborough Chemistry Department chair Paris Svoronos, a member of the CUNY Pipeline Steering Committee, said, "A lot of community college students are immigrants, so their English is poor, but their science background is excellent. So they can do all this work in chemistry, math and physics.

"You don't want to lose these students when they graduate, for instance, from Queensborough," professor Svoronos said. "We lose a lot of students to Stony Brook, Binghamton, to Buffalo. There is no reason why they should go there, and not come to CUNY, get their bachelor's at Hunter or Queens College or Staten Island, and then eventually continue with a master's and Ph.D."

The University is also focusing on ways to better prepare future students. The number of first-time freshmen enrolling in CUNY schools from New York City public high schools rose sharply during the seven-year period from 2002 to 2009 - an increase of 91.4 percent in the community colleges, 36.4 percent in the senior colleges and 57.1 percent in total. Now, CUNY and the New York City Department of Education are engaged in an ongoing partnership to align the two public systems so that city public school students are not only better prepared for college but capable of succeeding once they get there.

The University's College Now program already has some 20,000 city high school students taking college-level courses. But with the DOE graduating more high school students, the two education systems are sharing information about the city high schools' curricula, student test scores and other data. The idea of this partnership, the College Readiness and Success Working Group, is to make the two systems - DOE's and CUNY's - more transparent and to align them to make sure high school students get the coursework and advisement they need, said Senior University Dean for Academic Affairs John Mogulescu.

"The goal is to get students coming in better prepared, college ready, and being able to do college work and succeed," Dean Mogulescu said of the working group.