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2012 August 20 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: From the Ground Up

Photo courtesy City University of New York
The New Community College is located in a busy part of midtown Manhattan.

C  O   V   E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

From the Ground Up
CUNY Builds New Community College from Scratch
By Paul Bradley

In an era of shrinking resources and heightened accountability, it’s not every day that you get to build a community college from the ground up, testing concepts, implementing reforms, creating a culture from scratch.

But as the 2012-13 academic year gets under way, that’s what is unfolding in a former secretarial school in midtown Manhattan, across the street from leafy Bryant Park, not far from the venerable New York Public Library.

There, the New Community College is opening its doors to its first 339 students who soon will be at the center of a bold educational experiment being closely watched around the country. The product of 18 months of planning, the college becomes the seventh community college in the City University of New York system and the first community college CUNY has opened in four decades.

CUNY's new campus

More than that, though, the college is testing a completely new way of doing business. It’s not trying to be all things to all people, a persistent criticism of two-year schools. There will be no personal enrichment courses here. Obscure fields of study are out.

Rather, the New Community College, launched with the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is devoted completely to improving graduation rates, to getting students to the educational finish line, ready for a meaningful job or entry into a four-year college. The college has a goal of reaching a 40 percent graduation rate within five years; currently, only about one in five community college students graduate within three years.

The opportunity to lead a nascent college with a new approach to learning — and at a time when community colleges are being called on to produce more graduates — is what drew Scott E. Evenbeck to New York to become the college’s founding president. Evenbeck, an expert in educational assessment, had been a professor of psychology and dean of the University College at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

“It was a chance to do things differently,” he said. “The college’s concept paper put together a lot of elements at once: the field work, to have students in and of the city, to design a new curriculum, the learning communities, the emphasis on assessment.”

Around the country, the experiment is being closely watched.

“A lot of colleges want to move the needle on graduation rates, so they are looking for all the best practices they can find,” said Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. “It is testing some wonderful concepts, but we have to wait and see what the results are.”

Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, helped with the design of the New Community College. He said he is eager to see the results of such broad reform

Comprehensive Reform

“This is looking at the whole college and changing it from the ground up,” he said. “It may be that reform initiatives will work best when combined with other things. If you do one, two, or three elements of reform, they might not have lasting results. But when you do them all together with other things, they may work.”

“Maybe one of the lessons we’ll learn is that you need to have a comprehensive view of reform, that you can’t do it piecemeal. There will be a lot of lessons to be learned from the outcomes, about the ability to implement reforms college-wide.”

The experiment is not without its critics. Bumphus and others wonder whether the new enterprise can serve as a model for the broad swath of community colleges, since it requires full-time attendance, while 60 percent of community college students go part-time.

It’s been derided in some quarters as promoting a narrow curriculum and statistics-driven assessment of both faculty and students. Advocates for faculty members have complained about being excluded from the planning process and say a top-down administrative structure disregards faculty rights and shared governance.

Questions have been raised about whether the experiment, no matter how successful, can be replicated at other community colleges.

But copying best practices isn’t the point, said James Applegate, vice-president for program development at the Lumina Foundation, which works on boosting college graduation rates and is closely watching the experiment.

“With any new model, you can’t just cut and paste it into another location,” he said. “But we can learn about what contributed to student success, and how it can be adapted in other places. It’s not a matter of replication. It’s adaptation.”

The defining characteristics of the New Community College represent both radical departures from traditional approaches and some innovative, successful practices at CUNY’s other six community colleges.

They include a requirement that students attend full-time, at least for their first year in college; a merging of remediation into credit coursework; a limited number of programs of study that provide well-defined pathways to degree, transfer or employment; an Office of Partnerships to manage internships and employment opportunities; and a Center for College Effectiveness that will do continual assessments and disseminate information to faculty, staff, students and administrators.

Each applicant had to attend an extensive orientation session, followed by a one-on-one interview during which expectations were outlined and a path to graduation was mapped out. Students must agree to spend at least 90 minutes each week in group settings with classmates and peer mentors, in addition to mandatory
90-minute meetings with advisers, who are also faculty members.

The New Community College also includes a radically different first-year college experience.

Rather than picking and choosing their own courses, a process often akin to throwing darts at a dartboard, all New Community College students will take the same core curriculum.

It will consist of three blocks of three courses each: a “City Seminar” course will use New York’s urban setting to study government, culture, history and health; a Professional Studies course will explore major fields of study and address oral communication, research and information management; and Math Topics, designed to provide math content related to the college’s academic majors. During the second year, students will move into their majors and take part in an internship.

The number of credits students can earn during that first year will be determined by the quantity and quality of the work they produce. That work will be captured in an ePortfolio to be reviewed by a team of faculty.

ASAP as Template

The first-year experience will be critical to its success of the New Community College, said John Mogulescu, CUNY’s dean for academic affairs and dean of its School for Professional Studies. Mogulescu led the planning process for the New Community College.

“The first-year experience is very different in concept, and it’s unproven,” he said. “The thing that is the most different is the most important. To me, a lot is riding on that.”

Mogulescu has been a vocal booster of CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, a five-year-old initiative that has succeeded in boosting graduation rates among at-risk students and has become a template for the New Community College. The first cohort of ASAP students, admitted in 2007, has a three-year graduation rate of 55 percent, compared to 24 percent for a comparison group.

ASAP Director Donna Linderman said the program has succeeded by combining a highly structured pathway to graduation along with financial support for needy students. The program covers tuition and fees for eligible students, the free use of textbooks and free New York City Transit Metrocards.

Linderman has worked closely with the designers of the New Community College, and believes its work is scalable to large numbers of students and economically wise. The New Community College has a goal of eventually enrolling 5,000 students.

“By providing an upfront investment, we’ve been able to double the graduation rate,” she said. “It’s a relative bargain.”

Linderman and others reject criticism that the New Community College and ASAP are overly obsessed with graduation rates, too focused on moving students through at the expense of actual learning.

“Students are in college to get a degree,” she said. “They are not there to hang around. We take that very seriously.”

Evenbeck said the college is committed to taking meaningful learning seriously, through continual assessments and providing clear pathways to graduation. The college will be considered a success if it shows, through data, that its approach helped students graduate, he said.

“I think the college will be a success if we can articulate how we did things differently,” he said. “What are the aspects of what we’re doing most associated with students being successful? We will constantly be assessing how we can do things better. We won’t be doing everything the same in 2013 as we are now.”

Mogulescu hopes that the reform effort will benefit other community colleges.

“From the beginning, we wanted to demonstrate that if you did things differently, you’d get better results,” he said. “If we can show success, it will influence other colleges.

“We are trying something new that will serve as a model, if it works. And I think it will work.”

It’s YOUR TURN CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: Can the approach of the New Community College be replicated or adapted on your campus?
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