New Community College an Experiment to Improve CUNY System

The New Community College, set to open this fall, is a grand experiment by the New York Community College System to fix the fundamental problems plaguing the two-year institutions. The new school, whose name will soon be changed, hopefully to honor a large donor, aims to reach the student population most at risk for dropping out of college and guide them not only to an associate’s degree but help them make a transition to a four-year school.

It isn’t long before those seeking admission realize that this CUNY is unlike any other in the system. The application process requires attendance at a lengthy orientation session and then several one-on-one meetings with a guidance counselor to map out academic goals. No application will even be considered by the admissions staff before those two preliminary steps are completed.

At the information session, many students are surprised to learn that unlike the traditional two-semester school year in place at most other colleges, attending the NCC means classes during the summer and the winter as well. Students must enroll full time during the first year and make room in their schedule for frequent tutoring sessions and for checking in with the counselors to make sure they remain on track.

The NCC’s course catalog is spartan — at least for the first half of their education, all students take similar core courses.

These students do not display the habits or confidence that would have been instilled in a more privileged group. Just one of the 20 scribbles notes during the presentation, and when the floor is opened for questions, there are none. The professors, Nicola Blake and Tracy Daraviras, try hard to be open and engaging, stressing their own modest backgrounds; when they prod the students for reactions, though, they get little in return.

As the session continues, it’s clear that students are surprised by what they are hearing, but everyone is still paying attention.

The NCC experiment comes at a time when enrollment in community colleges across the country is growing, yet the graduation rate is stagnant. Only 25% of community college students graduate within three years, and even fewer transfer to a four-year school and go on to complete their bachelor’s degree. Although the numbers for full-time students are better – about 1/3rd go on to graduate – there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

The surging enrollment revealed in federal surveys — a 47 percent increase from 1990 to 2010 — means vastly more students arriving with weak academic records and poor study habits, unprepared for college-level work. About 40 percent of community college students take remedial courses, for which they do not earn any credit toward a degree, and studies show that many others need but do not take them.

Time will tell if the NCC will be exactly what the community college systems need to become more useful to their students.

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