Starting from Scratch

CUNY plans an innovative new community college to help students cross the finish line

By Ron Howell

Only a quarter of the nation's community college students earn an associate degree or go on to a four-year college within six years.

Some educators have come to accept these outcomes as intractable, but now an emerging model at CUNY for a new type of community college — with its primary focus to keep students in school and on track — may offer a pathway to improvement.

"We need bold and new approaches," Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said in testimony recently before the State Assembly's Committee on Higher Education. "Our students will face increasingly competitive pressures in an unforgiving economy and getting a degree matters," he said. "It is therefore in their interest to attend community colleges where the focus is on high standards and degree completion."

The plan for a new community college comes at a time when enrollment across CUNY's system is soaring. This fall, the total number of students is expected to top 250,000 — the highest level in the University's history. Community college enrollment is up 20 percent — from 68,044 to 81,538 since 2002.

The new community college — CUNY's first new two-year school in 37 years — is outlined in a 120-page "concept paper" that was produced for the chancellor by a team of educators led by John Mogulescu, senior University dean for academic affairs, and Tracy Meade, University director for collaborative programs.

The paper envisages a school with approximately 3,000 students, a much smaller enrollment than at other community colleges. The real difference, however, would be in the college's ethos: Students would be interviewed before admission, they would be required to enroll full-time in their first year, and their choice of majors would be limited to a handful of fields with the best job prospects.

The concept paper proposes a number of new strategies:

  • Use of interviews in the admissions process. Mogulescu stresses that the interviews, not used at existing community colleges, are to help administrators assess students' needs, not to weed them out.
  • Required attendance at a summer "bridge" program. This is based on an awareness that many students have been poorly prepared for college.
  • Division of the semester into three blocks of roughly five weeks each, with case-study based seminars introducing students to issues central to the vitality of New York City and its people. These include health services delivery, business and technology needs and elements of a green economy.
  • A reduced selection of about a dozen majors. "We're limiting the choices, trying to pick majors that seem to be more in tune with the economy," Mogulescu says. Possible majors include nursing, energy services management and urban education.

The plan for the new college joins a host of community college initiatives at the University aimed at supporting student success and timely graduation. A noteworthy example is that of the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, (ASAP) a joint undertaking of CUNY and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, in which selected students study full time and receive focused assistance, including tuition support, with the goal of dramatically increasing the number of students who graduate in three years.

The work ahead for the new community college involves moving the concept paper from a description of key educational features and practices into a detailed and comprehensive plan for implementation of the school.

University faculty and staff will be actively involved in all levels of planning, from serving on the project's steering committee to chairing and serving on the many committees charged with developing a final plan and hiring inaugural faculty and staff to open the college.

As CUNY moves its plan for the new school forward, it is taking heart from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is spending hundreds of millions to help boost college graduation rates around the country, especially among low-income and minority groups.

In November, Hilary Pennington, director of special initiatives for the Gates Foundation in the United States, praised CUNY's blueprint. She lauded the idea of creating "new institutions to show what is possible when a college is designed from the start with completion as the focus."

Early this year, the Gates Foundation gave CUNY a $560,000 grant for the planning phase of the new college.

Bill Gates has said the time is right for iconoclastic approaches. He's mentioned the "dynamic new president" who has put education and innovation at the top of the domestic agenda.

In a systemwide effort to improve degree attainment for its community college students, the University is designing new programs and pathways that face up to the challenge of raising graduation rates. With the national spotlight illuminating the accomplishments of and challenges faced by community colleges, CUNY's effort to develop and implement a new model will be closely watched for what it can contribute to the larger conversation about innovation in higher education.