Community colleges are by nature pleasers and multitaskers. It's in their DNA: They struggle to say no. They offer remedial classes alongside college course work. They prepare students to transfer to a four-year college or to immediately enter the work force. They give their communities meeting space, house public libraries, and offer free dental clinics.
While multitaskers can do many things, they cannot always do them well. Community colleges provide access to higher education for millions of students—including 6.6 million who are seeking degrees. But the majority of those students don't get one, at least not within two or three years. There are plenty of reasons. Community-college students often must work around jobs, kids, and bad high-school educations. But maybe the colleges' divided attention has something to do with it, too.
MORE ON COMMUNITY COLLEGES: Buy The Chronicle's Special Report
Two years ago, leaders of the City University of New York had a radical idea: Build a completely different kind of community college, focused entirely on the need to sharply increase graduation rates. Restrict enrollment. Require applicants to interview, and students to attend full time. Offer a limited set of majors, tailored to work-force needs. And provide students with lots of support.
In short, could you change the DNA of a community college? And, if so, would it matter?
Matthew Goldstein doesn't have the answers. But, as chancellor of the CUNY system, he's willing to spend the time and money to get them. Over the past decade, enrollment at the city's community colleges has soared 43 percent. Borough of Manhattan Community College is the most stretched, with more than 21,000 students.
The new CUNY college, as yet unnamed, will open in temporary space. Eventually, it is slated for a spot just off Columbus Circle, in a heavily trafficked, rapidly redeveloping part of midtown Manhattan. Today the site is occupied by an old textbook warehouse huddled among apartment and office towers. It houses part of CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which would move into new digs across the street.
The new college will eventually enroll up to 5,000 students. The goal is to have an entering class of 500 to 700 in 2012, starting with a required summer academy. College officials expect at least 30 percent of those students to graduate within three years. In a system with 88,000 degree-seeking students in community colleges, that may not seem like a lot. But consider this: In 2006, more than 17,000 students enrolled for the first time, full time, in associate-degree programs at CUNY colleges. After three years, only 10 percent had made it through. And, of an earlier group of students, only 29 percent earned an associate or bachelor's degree within six years.
That's too few students, and too much time.
The new college would be expected to hit a three-year graduation rate of 40 percent after five years. At full enrollment, Mr. Goldstein says, that becomes a significant contribution to the work force. More than that, he says, "the real potential is in influencing how we engage students who come to community colleges."
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York have given almost $900,000 in grants for the planning process, and Mr. Goldstein expects the system to spend "several million dollars" to get the doors open. New York's mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, promised the city would invest $50-million for the new campus and other community-college projects during his re-election campaign last year.
The system has already put six people on the project full time, and dozens of others are working on it in some capacity. More than planning a campus, the college's leaders are building a concept. They're searching for a magic combination that will improve those graduation rates.
Mr. Goldstein is convinced that "you've got to take uncertainty out of the system" for more students to succeed. And the people hammering out the formula for the new college are working backward from that solution.
For example, the college will offer only 12 majors, including nursing, a liberal-arts degree for students seeking to transfer, and supply-chain management, which is essentially the physics and economics of processing raw materials and moving finished goods. LaGuardia Community College, by comparison, has over 50 majors, as well as certificate and noncredit programs.
While limiting choices in the new college may prevent students from drifting, it also means that a nursing student, for example, would be out of luck if he decides that his real interest is in criminal justice. "The idea of limiting choice makes sense," says Thomas R. Bailey, director of Columbia University's Community College Research Center. "But the fundamental problem is that you have to get students to the point where they can say, 'I want to be a nurse.'"
It's a hurdle that CUNY's working committee on enrollment management recognized. "For the prospective student, career exploration begins when he or she contemplates attending" the new college, the committee wrote. Every applicant will be required to attend a group information session, followed by a one-on-one interview with an admissions counselor. While admissions will not be selective, students will be strongly encouraged to consider whether the college is a good fit. For example, students must commit to attend full time in their first year and spend at least 22 hours on the campus each week.
That requirement was set, in part, because students will be assigned to cohorts and take courses in blocks that mix remedial work, occupational training, and the liberal arts. The idea is to eliminate the confusing menu of general-education options. And the core curriculum gets students doing college-level work right way, rather than making them plow through remedial course work first.
"The first year is what people seem the most excited about," says John Mogulescu, chair of the project's steering committee and senior university dean for academic affairs. "Remedial is a sticky subject."
That approach isn't based just on wishful thinking. It builds on mounting research and a history of reform.
When Mr. Goldstein became chancellor, in 1999, he focused on improving the admissions and academic standards of the system's four-year colleges, at the behest of city and state leaders. Over a decade later, the results are apparent.
The city's community colleges, on the other hand, were—and are—well regarded. Their leaders are regulars on the acronym circuit, headlining national meetings or sitting on the boards of AACC, ACCT, and ACE, to name a few. The colleges are magnets for grant money—a measure of influence, sure, but also of innovation.
One CUNY project, which has received millions from the city as well as from foundations, serves as the model for the new college. The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs started in 2007, serving students across the system's six community colleges. Students must apply for the program and attend full time. In exchange, the program covers many of their costs and provides intensive advising.
"If it weren't for ASAP, I wouldn't be in school right now," says Rama Diallo, a 19-year-old majoring in business administration at LaGuardia. Her counselor has advised her about career options, and a recent workshop on transfer led her to consider colleges outside of New York State.
The financial support has helped, too. Ms. Diallo does not qualify for federal aid, because she isn't a U.S. citizen. But the program gives her monthly cards for public transportation and free textbook rentals, which have helped cut her costs.
Over all, the three-year-old program is promising. Of the 1,132 original students, 30 percent graduated within two years, and estimates show that almost 60 percent are likely to graduate within three.
"When I think about ASAP, is it scalable? I'm not sure," says Bernard A. Polnariev, director of LaGuardia's ASAP program. "But when I think about the community-college model, not much has changed. Obviously something is missing, and it hasn't been addressed properly or thoroughly."
The CUNY colleges certainly aren't the only ones wrestling with that puzzle. The push to rethink the work that community colleges do has taken root with efforts like Achieving the Dream, now in its sixth year, and projects run by a handful of national research centers. "There's been a lot of reform energy in community colleges," says Mr. Bailey, of the Community College Research Center. "But it often ends up being around the edges."
There are good reasons for that. Money is one. And questions remain about exactly what the research means.
For example, work done by the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Community College Student Engagement clearly shows that full-time students are more engaged than part-timers are. And, according to federal data, full-time students are more likely to stay enrolled and graduate. But do you require students to attend full time? Or do you provide more support for those who can't?
Mr. Bailey thinks colleges should be pushing more students to attend full time, if possible. "I don't think that's violating the underlying objectives of community college," he says. The key for CUNY, he says, is to make sure the new college doesn't cannibalize full-time enrollment at the existing ones.
About 85 percent of CUNY's community-college students start out full time, but many drop to part time after their first semester. About 40 percent of all students attend part time. "It's not a heavy lift to get to 100 percent," for new students, says Mr. Goldstein.
But CUNY is in a rare situation. Nationwide about 60 percent of community-college students attend part time. Kay M. McClenney, director of the community-college engagement center, says the solution to most part-time students' problems is not to get them to go full time. Rather, colleges need to find ways to provide more support for those students. "Statistically it's good for students to attend full time," she says, "but what do you do for the students who can't?"
At CUNY those students have other options. And therein lies both the strength and the weakness of the new college's model. "I like experiments, and this is a grand experiment," says George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. "My biggest concern is that I don't think it can be replicable."
There are few urban areas as dense as New York City. There are few college systems like CUNY, which is one of the nation's largest and is highly centralized. And while Mr. Goldstein doesn't have a magic wand, he does have a lot of pull. He can make a new college happen.
That's a far different reality from the one at, say, North Iowa Area Community College. Could the colleges in that state create something similar? Would they want to? Debra A. Derr, North Iowa's president, thinks it's an interesting model. But she sees a lot of hurdles, not the least of which is the tradition of institutional autonomy in the state. What's more, a central function of her college, in Mason City, is to promote community and bring arts to the rural area. "Every city, every state, every region has a personality," she says. "And some of the fit has to do with the personality."
New York, of course, is a city of big ideas—and big risks. Mr. Goldstein's bet is that the new college will pay off big. He could be right. But even he can't take all the uncertainty out of that gamble.