CUNY: A Model for Expanding College Access and Success

Peter Sloane

Chairman and CEO of the Heckscher Foundation for Children


As seen on Philanthropy News Digest

As James B. (“JB”) Milliken steps down after four years as chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY), many stories about his successes and dedication to students are emerging. Mine is a personal tribute based on what I’ve observed first-hand as a committed but demanding supporter.

JB’s leadership in getting students not just to but through college is exemplary. CUNY propels nearly six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as the twelve “Ivy League Plus” campuses combined (as demonstrated by Raj Chetty of Stanford University and a group of other prominent economists). While this has always been a strength at CUNY, JB called for improving that record with an audacious plan to double graduation rates at its seven community college in five years — and to increase by ten percentage points the four-year CUNY college graduation rates.

The university is on track to meet those goals. According to CUNY, three-year graduation rates from associate programs have climbed from 13.6 percent for the cohort that entered full-time in 2010 to 19.2 percent for the 2014 cohort, and are on track to achieve the chancellor’s target of 35.6 percent for the 2019 cohort. Six-year graduation rates for baccalaureate degrees have improved from 51 percent for the cohort that entered full-time in 2006 to 56.6 percent for the 2011 cohort, and are on track to achieve the goal of 61 percent for the 2017 cohort.

To get there, JB scaled a successful pilot named ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs) from 3,700 students to more than 25,000 students. It is now the best program in the country for accelerating community college graduation rates. Graduation rates for students in the program are at 55 percent in three years, compared with the national average of 16 percent, and it costs just under $4,000 per student.

JB also sought to build on this success by launching ASAP-like programs, including SPARK (Strategic Partnerships for Achievement and Retention at Kingsborough). Now in its third year, SPARK has dramatically increased retention rates among students with high remedial needs and prepares them to transfer to four-year CUNY institutions or enter the workforce — all at a modest cost. The Heckscher Foundation has given nearly $1.7 million in support of the program over the last three years because the results are phenomenal. Brooklyn-based Kingsborough has exceeded our benchmarks for success in each year of the program, despite the fact that students recruited for SPARK have generally received the lowest scores on the CUNY reading, writing, and math entrance exams and placed into the lowest-level English and math courses. Yet retention rates for the SPARK cohorts are significantly higher than rates for other Kingsborough freshman populations, according to the college’s own data.

We know that a college degree is the best way to break the cycle of poverty. Given the challenges faced by first-generation and underserved youth and public budgetary challenges across the country, a willingness and openness to work with the private sector is essential. JB instituted a culture of completion across the city university system with what I believe is his most farsighted and powerful initiative, Connected CUNY. This is a set of smart, interconnected strategies that leverage the university’s resources through effective partnerships within CUNY’s colleges and programs, and externally with research, governmental, and corporate partners. The plan incorporates work with the New York City Department of Education and others, significantly boosting the number of college-ready entrants to CUNY; uses tested student success strategies to dramatically improve graduation rates; and creates workplace pathways for CUNY graduates to launch careers. Connected CUNY requires collaboration at an entirely new level, and it has been impressive to watch and participate in.

Let me give you another example. Our foundation approached JB with an innovative private-public partnership opportunity. Under the initiative, we would agree to partially fund a “pay-for-success” program to raise graduation rates at CUNY. We offered to stand behind the program along with Bottom Line, a provider of student retention services. JB immediately called three CUNY college presidents and suggested that we meet to explore the idea, which he fully supported as an innovative approach to graduation paths. We are now entering into a memorandum of understanding with Lehman College to launch the program.

Another time, while I was in JB’s conference room, he pulled me aside and asked that we support a program to provide funding to students who were displaced by the devastating hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who might want to attend CUNY while their colleges were closed. We readily agreed, and in late 2017 we committed $100,000 to cover tuition and fees at CUNY for students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

I first met JB after reading about him and sending him an email suggesting he might want to meet funders interested in education. I then organized a lunch for twenty-five leaders of major education-focused private foundations. JB came alone, without handlers, press people, assistants, or aides, and with no canned speech or notes. What he brought instead, and quickly demonstrated, was an in-depth knowledge of the challenges CUNY faced and a determination to meet them head on. He was new to his job but deeply impressed us with his breadth of knowledge and willingness to try different solutions.

If you care about social and economic mobility for underrepresented, low-income, and immigrant students, look at what James B. Milliken has done to create a model of success at the City University of New York, the largest and most diverse urban university in the country. Under his leadership, CUNY has developed the kinds of programs and initiatives that policy makers and funders should be lining up to support. We applaud his efforts and wish him all the best in his future endeavors.

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Chairman and CEO
Heckscher Foundation for Children