Shaking Up the Community College Concept

CUNY's plans to create a new two-year institution, with a core curriculum and requiring full-time enrollment, represents a dramatic shift in the model -- attracting much enthusiasm and a few raised eyebrows.
February 6, 2009

The state budget is plummeting, enrollment at community colleges is booming and graduation rates are disappointingly stagnant. What better time, officials of the City University of New York seem to think, to create a new type of community college to complement its six existing two-year institutions. The vision is consistent with national calls by many educators to look for new ways to get more community college students to complete programs speedily, but the plan has stricter requirements and a narrower curriculum than many community colleges -- leaving some observers concerned. Even a number of the skeptics, however, are applauding CUNY for trying something so different.

In August, CUNY unveiled a lengthy concept paper outlining the beginnings of a plan for a new community college -- the city’s first since 1970 -- potentially set to open in Manhattan in the next several years.

The institution would be a twist on the typical two-year model. With a planned enrollment of 5,000 students, the college would be the system’s second smallest institution. All first-year students would be required to take a predetermined core curriculum and would then be limited to their choice of about 12 majors -- each with a prominent focus on internships and other on-the-job educational opportunities. The proposed majors are mostly in pre-career fields of study such as nursing, surgical technology and energy services management.

Still, there are a few majors designed to help students transfer to four-year institutions, such as urban education and urban studies -- programs designed to focus on issues specific to New York City. The college would not have the “traditional remediation/credit divide” and instead would place all its students on a credit-earning track from day one -- using the comprehensive core curriculum to prepare students at all educational levels. Although the college would maintain open admissions, all students would be required to attend a face-to-face interview with a college counselor before being admitted and would be required to enroll full time with at least 12 credits per semester for their first year.

"The full-time requirement is shaped by the belief that unprepared students require more sustained time to develop, practice, and demonstrate beyond the level of minimum proficiency the skills and knowledge they will need for associate degree completion, baccalaureate transfer and/or workplace readiness," the proposal reads. "Equally important is that 'more sustained time' not be more of the same time, that is, time spent in zero credit remedial courses or introductory courses designed to provide broad introductions to the liberal arts and sciences. The implications of time spent differently suggests a need for curricular and instructional configurations that depart significantly from the traditional baccalaureate structures community colleges inherited and are expected to replicate."

Full-Time Students Only

Some educators, however, have expressed concern about the college’s sole inclusion of those students who have the ability and means to attend full time. The full-time requirement "raises eyebrows," said Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, noting that it does not acknowledge the reality that most community college students around the country -- almost 60 percent -- attend part time so that they can tend to pressing work or family obligations. Still, she granted that full-time community college students are more likely to either graduate or transfer to a four-year institution than are those who attend part time.

“If [CUNY] implements this new community college, then what are [they] going to do?” McClenney asked. “Are [they] going to serve a small portion of students who are going to succeed anyway, or are [they] either going to embrace or change the realities of those they bring in? [They’re] sort of experimenting in a bubble that is built on full-time students, built without some of the constraints faced by those with part-time students. It’s always easier to create a new institution rather than to transform existing ones.”

If the new model proves successful in dramatically improving the graduation rates of its students, McClenney said it would be difficult to bring some of these same reforms to CUNY’s existing community colleges -- several of which are highly regarded for success with part-time, disadvantaged students and helping them persist, but typically not on a speedy schedule. The new two-year institution, she said, should not be thought of as “one size fits all.” While she applauded the model for its experimental nature and noted it would likely work well in New York City, she said a model like this could not work everywhere.

The full-time model, some scholars have noted, is a better fit for traditional age students. Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College and a member of an advisory board for the new college, said even though it is very hard for working adults to attend college full time, this model might serve CUNY’s enrollment base well. Almost 60 percent of CUNY community college students are 22 years old or younger.

“One could argue that there may be optimal strategies to deal with [traditional-age students],” Bailey said. “There's a strain of thought that says, ‘Let’s not encourage students to do part time.’ Maybe we should convince students that there’s a real usefulness in attending quickly. In this case, I don’t know that we need to think of every solution as a universal solution.”

CUNY’s concept paper acknowledges that “those students unable to study full-time will be excluded from this pathway.” John Mogulescu, the system’s senior university dean for academic affairs, who has led the effort for the new community college, said he does not think of the requirement as “exclusionary," but admits that it does present prospective students with a “decision to make.” If, after much consideration, a student simply cannot attend full time, he said, the system has six other community colleges to serve that student's needs.

Nevertheless, Mogulescu argued that not many students would be turned away by this policy. Eighty-seven percent of first-time freshmen attending CUNY’s community colleges attend full time. Of all CUNY community college students, 56 percent attend full time -- well above the national average of 41 percent. If the mandatory full-time model is wildly successful at the new college, he said, the requirement could be strongly suggested to students attending other colleges in the system.

“If we play this out and see that the results for full-time students are well beyond [those for part-time students], we would be very open about this with our student population,” Mogulescu said. “There would still be opportunities for students to attend part time. Still, we would tell the student, ‘If you go full-time and kill yourself for three years, you’ll have better success than if you went part time for six years.’ Then, the student would have a very informed decision to make.”

Though CUNY officials are very clear that this new community college is not for every student, some higher education leaders worry it could create a hierarchy within the system. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said special subdivisions within institutions, such as honors programs and learning communities, tend to succeed because they target students who are mostly not at risk. He argued the only way this new community college model would truly prove successful is if it attracts students who would not have otherwise attended full time. Otherwise, he said, it will be catering to only those students who stand a better chance of success in the first place.

“Community colleges that have honors programs or other subsets within them are often seen as higher status programs,” said Boggs, noting that the new CUNY model does not quite fit this description as it would still be open access. “If [the new community college] does not serve everyone, it could emerge as a higher status institution. It might draw some of the better students or those who intend to go full time to it first.”

A Companion, Not Competition

Some presidents from CUNY’s six existing community colleges, however, scoff at this notion and do not think the new institution will be thought of any better than theirs -- just different. Antonio Pérez, president of Borough of Manhattan Community College, said his institution -- the largest in the city, serving 21,000 students -- is already at capacity and would welcome another community college in Manhattan while it waits to expand its campus. Increasing enrollments system-wide -- up about 31 percent in the past decade -- are another impetus for the new community college.

“I don’t see it as competition at all,” said Pérez of the new college. “Honestly, it doesn’t change things at all for us. We can’t accommodate all the students who want to come here anyway. We just don’t have the space. If the new college can come up with new and creative ways of doing things that we do here, that’s great. No shoe fits all, and they will be able to try things there that we cannot here.”

Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, expressed a similar sentiment, especially noting her excitement at CUNY’s willingness to experiment with this new model.

“There may be minor concerns, but if we could figure out how to dramatically increase graduation rates, that would be profoundly important,” Mellow said. “I think that’s the whole point of this grand experiment. I’ve never seen a faculty member do something and say it was a total bust. I’ve also never seen a 20 to 30 percent boost in graduation rates, and nobody else has either. This is gutsy. If we just learn five new things to try with students, CUNY would try to implement them throughout the system. It’s not the end of the rainbow, but it’s a big chunk of the challenge we face.”

Despite the optimism, Mogulescu said leaders of some of the other community colleges have expressed concern that -- with all of the coverage it has received -- the new institution will draw money and resources away from their colleges. He said CUNY has been working with many private donors and other outside programs to ensure that this will not happen. Mogulescu, however, would not comment on the status of potential funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- a group that has promised hundreds of millions of dollars to improve completion rates at community colleges.

The state legislature would have to approve formal funding measures for the project, while the plan for the institution itself must be approved by the New York State Board of Regents. As the community college is still in the early planning stages, these moves are not expected for at least another year or so.

Officials from in and outside of the CUNY system admit this new model is daring, but most agree its potential to succeed and be a proving ground for best practices is worth the challenges it may present. As the model cannot be replicated at scale throughout the whole system, however, some caution that CUNY should not stop here.

“I think it would be a shame if this absorbed all of the reform and energy resources,” Bailey said. “It’s not a comprehensive solution to all the problems. I would hope that the individual colleges [within CUNY] are encouraged to try new things as well. Could this model be improved and are there problems with it? Absolutely. Still, we’re dealing with difficult issues, and I think it’s worth trying radically different approaches.”


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