The Great Community College Experiment

City University of New York continues designing new two-year institution -- aimed at maximizing student outcomes -- from ground up.
December 2, 2009

NEW YORK – Though many in academe have great interest in its plan to develop an experimental community college designed specifically to maximize student success, the City University of New York is still more than a year away from having its much-discussed vision become a reality.

The New CUNY Community College Initiative, as the project is formally known, is entering the second of three stages of structural and curricular development for the new two-year institution, the city’s first in nearly 40 years. Many of the hallmarks of the college’s initially outlined design are still in place after months of refinement, including its strict enrollment requirements and limited curriculum.

For instance, all students interested in the college would have to attend a face-to-face interview with an academic counselor before admission. There, they would be told of the institution’s requirements that they attend full time for their first academic year, take a predetermined basic education curriculum, and choose from one of only 12 majors. In their second year, all students would receive internships and other on-the-job training experiences in their field of choice. Throughout, these students would receive more direct counseling and mentoring than traditional community college students do, concerning everything from career planning to financial aid issues.

Defending the Model

A few of the basic tenets of the planned college, particularly its limited selection of majors and its requirement that students attend full time, have given some critics the impression that it has the potential to turn into an “elite” institution, distancing itself from the city’s six existing two-year colleges.

“If [CUNY] implements this new community college, then what are [they] going to do?” Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, said about the CUNY project to Inside Higher Ed in February. “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.”

John Mogulescu, CUNY senior dean for academic affairs, said the college's designers have not wavered on its core components, despite some of the outside concerns.Still, he confessed that he and other planners are having some trouble winning over others with constructive critiques of the new community college, which, with a planned enrollment between 3,000 and 4,000, would be the smallest in the city.

“There has to be this understanding, between the student and the [new] institution, that there is a match,” he said. “If someone knows for certain that they want a major that is not one that this college has, they would not come to this college. They would go elsewhere. I want to be clear, because many people have said this is going to be a ‘creaming institution,’ and it’s not. It’s going to be an open-admission institution with a caveat that students will start full time.”

Tracy Meade, CUNY university director for collaborative programs, echoed Mogulescu’s promise, noting that 87 percent of freshmen who matriculate into a CUNY community college for the first time do so as full-time students. Still, she insisted that the system’s planning committee for the new college decided on the full-time requirement long before it saw data convincing them that this requirement would not isolate many traditional students.

“We’ve started to lose track of the original reason why we thought this would be a good idea,” she said of requiring all of the college’s students to attend full time and take a structured core curriculum. “The debate was on another level: What do we learn about these students first and foremost to get them over the biggest hurdles that they haven’t been able to get over again, again and again? I don’t want that to get lost in the shuffle. We may learn, for instance, that a certain way of structuring the first year [at this new community college] will work at our existing community colleges [that include part-time students] because we’ve done something right here. Our plan is based on student need, not on rigging the game based on picking students who attend full time.”

Selecting the Majors

Perhaps the most change the new community college model has undergone in the past year is the deliberately limited curriculum it would include. A CUNY work committee has finalized a list of 12 majors that would be offered at the institution and divided them into four larger concentrations: health sciences, business and information studies, education and human services, and liberal arts and sciences.

Currently, eight of the 12 majors have “pre-articulated” agreements with CUNY four-year institutions to provide a seamless transition for students into a specific discipline if they choose to earn a baccalaureate degree. Meade compared this development to one that is about to be tried elsewhere within the system.

“Queensborough Community College and Hunter College will have joint registrations for nursing starting next year,” she said. “The breakthrough is that they’ll be registered at both institutions at the same time, sealing the deal in terms of the credit acceptance and guaranteed transfer to a baccalaureate focus. That’s a good model for us to follow.”

Though CUNY officials decided from the very beginning of their planning that this new college would have fewer majors than a traditional community college – arguing that perhaps these other institutions lose students by giving them too many options – they chose to select some majors over others for the limited curriculum in an almost Darwinian fashion.

“We went about taking a look at labor market information and what our community colleges currently offer and tried to make a match between students’ interest and what’ll be viable three or so years down the road when they’re done,” Mogulescu said. “For that, we brought in some and dismissed others, knowing that fields like health care and business would have to be included and that the liberal arts would have to be included for students who aren’t sure what they want to do.”

Still, there would be overlap between the programs offered by the new community college and existing two-year institutions in the city. Only the associate degree in environmental sciences would be unique to the new college.

Though Mogulescu said he had not heard pushback from colleges who saw the duplicative nature of the new institution’s majors as “threatening,” Meade did admit that CUNY officials eliminated some majors from the new college's menu because of such concerns.

“For instance, at Borough of Manhattan Community College there is a media studies major,” she said, noting the uniqueness of that major to BMCC. “If this new college is going to be in Manhattan, we want to be clear that we weren’t competing with them for students, and so we took it off our list.”

Seeking Students and Finding Faculty

Unlike Accelerated Study in Associate Programs – an experimental CUNY initiative to graduate as many highly motivated students as quickly as possible, which shares many curricular and enrollment restrictions with the new community college model – there are no plans for the new CUNY institution to offer any merit-based scholarships. ASAP is a time-limited program set to expire when its grant funding runs out, and the new community college would be a permanent institution.

“Once we establish money for this new college, if we could set aside money, say, for Metrocards or something, that’d be great,” Mogulescu said of some additional financial assistance beyond the ever-present state and federal programs. “The downside of that is then people will say, ‘Well, the reason you’re so successful is that you have all these other resources.’ Still, I’d never turn money down.”

Meade, however, believes that the new institution’s required and personalized weekly student counseling time would ensure that everyone is up-to-date on all financial aid issues and would have his or her needs met.

Though the new two-year institution lacks the “carrot” of ASAP’s financial assistance – which voids tuition for its students, pays for their textbooks and buys them Metrocards – CUNY officials insist it will not be hard to market the new college to students and differentiate it from its sister institutions around the city.

“There’s always going to be some need for seats, because our community colleges are very popular and people want to go to them,” Mogulescu said. “But, we’ll have to get the message out there that we’re going to try something different from our existing colleges and that it’s worth a try. We have to try to present it in a way that’s clear to students. For example, we can’t promise them that if they come here they’ll graduate, but we can tell them that’s the goal. We’re not worried about getting students to come.”

Mogulescu also suggested the new institution would have the same ease in attracting faculty. Though the college would have open searches for positions, he imagined that many instructors from within the CUNY system might want move to the new college because of its experimental model.

“I can’t say that we’ll have all full-time faculty members, but that’s the goal,” said Mogulescu, noting the importance of having full-time faculty work with students who are also required to be there full time. “The idea that this’ll be an adjunct-driven school is not true.”

More Planning and Goal Setting

Toni Gifford, associate director for the New Community College Initiative, said she and her colleagues still had a great deal of work to accomplish before they could unveil the college, depending on how future planning goes. Still, she noted that CUNY officials were just now putting a structure to some of the college’s early goals.

For instance, Mogulescu said CUNY has been working with a number of local employers, from those in health care to the financial services industry, to solidify relationships for the second-year internships guaranteed to students at the new community college. He admitted, however, that more work needed to be done to mold the major-specific curriculum in a student’s second and third year at the college.

Also, Meade said time was still needed to plan the “summer bridge program” that all students at the new college would be required to take to prepare them for college-level work. The new college would not offer traditional remedial courses; instead, all students would begin taking credit-bearing courses on day one. This summer program, Meade noted, must be structured in a way that gets students on the same track before starting together in the fall.

Though no date has officially been set, Mogulescu said he expects the first class of students to enter CUNY’s new community college either in July of 2011 or 2012. For its first six or seven years, he added, the college would reside in leased spaced, but it would eventually move to a permanent location near CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


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