SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

Executive Summary

More students than ever before are graduating high school in New York City. More high school students have access to college-level and college-preparatory classes. And many more are applying to--and attending--college. These are trends New York City can be proud of.

The number of New York City public high school graduates has increased by a third in recent years; the on-time high school graduation rate reached 64.7 percent in 2012, up from 46.5 percent in 2005. And nearly 73 percent of 2011 graduates went on to college in that year.

Unfortunately, college completion rates for the city's public high school graduates remain low. Many of those who enroll in higher education do not complete a college degree. At the City University of New York, by far the most popular choice for the city's students, just over half of incoming freshmen in fall 2006 got a bachelor's degree within six years at CUNY's senior colleges. At the community colleges, just 16 percent of students entering in 2009 earned a two-year associate's degree within three years. These numbers are in line with national trends, which also show a leap in the number of low-income and minority students going to college, but show little change in the college diploma rate over the last 10 years.

Increasing the number of high school graduates who make it to college and earn a degree has been an elusive goal for policymakers.

Increasing the numbers of New York City high school graduates going to college and earning a college degree has proven to be an elusive goal for local policymakers. This report seeks to illuminate the latest college access efforts here, and to shed new light on the complicated circumstances that allow some students to go to college and succeed--and so many others to fail.

The Center for New York City Affairs has enjoyed a useful vantage point for this work. Our researchers have spent four years in 12 low-income high schools and two middle schools, serving as evaluators for a foundation-funded initiative called College Ready Communities. The initiative paired up schools with community-based organizations and advocacy groups with the goal of increasing the number of students matriculating to four-year colleges.

The goal seemed clear enough, but it didn't take long for the schools and their partners to realize that college matriculation and success requires far more work than simply increasing the number of students who fill out applications and get accepted to college.

Center researchers fanned out across the city to speak with educators, nonprofit practitioners, student leaders, philanthropists and a wide variety of college experts. We had discussions with officials at the city's Department of Education and the City University of New York (CUNY). And we benefitted from the perspectives of top scholars on this issue, many who are now calling for a radical restructuring of the nation's public education system to better prepare all students--not just the elite--for college success. "We've baked inequality into this system and we will never get it out unless there is an intervention," says University of Oregon Professor David T. Conley, one of the field's top experts. "We need to equalize this opportunity."

Living-wage jobs increasingly require some kind of college credential, ranging from a technical certificate to a four-year degree. The federal government estimates that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require both a high school degree and some post-secondary training. A recent report by the National Skills Coalition predicts that the greatest growth nationally will be in "middle-skilled" jobs in fields like plumbing, electrical work, legal support and health care; employers are predicting a shortage of these workers in the years to come. Alas, in New York City, competition remains stiff for coveted mid-skilled jobs--and the city's graduates compete with an influx of young people from all over the world for jobs. Students here frequently need a degree just to get a foot in the door with employers.

It is imperative that we understand what is required of our public education system to fully prepare high school graduates for either college or a credential that will allow career success. We also need to better understand the responsibility that students, families and communities have to guide their own preparation for life after high school. Colleges, too, have a tremendous responsibility to improve their own support systems for first-generation college-goers. While this report focuses primarily on what is happening in New York City high schools, we hope this research will also begin a discussion about what needs to happen in other arenas--including our communities and colleges--as we move toward a time when almost every student is fully prepared to get a useful college credential or degree.

UNDERSTANDING NEW YORK CITY'S "ASPIRATIONS GAP"

More city students are graduating from high school, and most are aware that a high school diploma is not enough. They know they need college, and they are excited about the opportunities that college offers. Surveys of students in eight public high schools, conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs in 2011 and 2012, found that most 10th and 11th graders fully expect to go to college--and their parents expect them to as well. These students were nearly all from low-income and working poor families; many were English Language Learners and few of their relatives or family members had ever been to college. Yet more than 40 percent of the 10th graders we surveyed hoped to work in business or become professionals, like doctors or lawyers. Fully two-thirds of these 10th and 11th graders expected to finish at least a four-year college degree.

More city students are graduating from high school, and most are aware that a high school diploma is not enough. They know they need college.

At the same time, this group was uncertain--or completely in the dark--about what they needed to do to get ready for college in high school. Nearly 70 percent believed that a high school diploma alone would prepare them for college-level work. And most thought that only their junior and senior years in high school would count when it came time to compete for college spots. Only 12 percent of students surveyed understood that colleges would look at their "cume," the cumulative average grades from their entire high school career. (See "High Hopes...Fragile Expectations," page 18.)

Scholars, including David Conley, call this stark juxtaposition of big ambitions and naïve (but reasonable) assumptions an "aspirations gap." Nearly all middle school students, when polled, expect to go to college and get a degree. Of these students, 70 will graduate high school, 44 will enroll in college and only 26 will get a bachelor's degree within six years of enrolling, Conley says.

New York City's numbers are similar. For every 100 high school freshmen enrolling in 2007, 66 graduated on time and 49 enrolled in college the following fall. Then the numbers sink. Persistence statistics tracked by the city's Department of Education show that nearly one in four students typically drops out of college by the end of his or her first year. At CUNY, the number of students earning a timely bachelor's degree ranges from a high of 66 percent at Baruch College to 23 percent at Medgar Evers. And rates for a timely associate's degree are quite low, ranging from a high of 22 percent at Kingsborough to lows of 10 percent at Bronx and Hostos Community Colleges.

Nationally, there has been a drumbeat of criticism from the business community for the past decade about the inadequate preparation of the future skilled workforce. A coalition of business groups and prominent education think tanks has been working with state governors and educators on improving the quality of K to 12 schooling so that more students will graduate "college ready." The culmination of this work is the new Common Core State Standards, which provide national benchmarks aimed at increasing the numbers of high school graduates genuinely prepared for college or careers. New York State has begun implementing these standards, along with other federally funded efforts, to create a coherent "PK to 16" system and push for higher quality schools and stronger teaching.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg publically entered the fray with the appointment of Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott in April 2011. Walcott announced on his first day that the city's new goal for students would no longer be focused on graduation alone but rather on "making sure all of our children are college ready and ready to work."

It has been two years since Chancellor Walcott's inaugural speech. Center for New York City Affairs researchers were in the College Ready Communities schools for two years before the chancellor took office and witnessed what happened in the two-year aftermath. Three notable changes have occurred:

High schools are now held publically accountable for college and career readiness: The Department of Education's primary tool for driving system change is its annual high-stakes Progress Report for each city school. In the past, the Progress Report for high schools focused primarily on moving students successfully from ninth grade to graduation. Many criticized the department for putting too much emphasis on graduation rates and Regents test scores, arguing that schools were incentivized to reduce the rigor of their courses and graduate students by any means necessary. A new "college and career readiness" grade now assigns an "A" to "F" grade to each high school that is worth 10 percent of their total score; it is based on the school's college matriculation rate, how many students have test scores high enough to enter CUNY without remedial courses and the number of students who take and pass at least one college preparatory course. (See "Making Progress After Graduation," page 17.)

Principals and teachers now know much more about their students after graduation: In the past, principals and teachers could be forgiven for focusing exclusively on their students' graduation. No more: The Department of Education has created new "Where Are They Now" reports that offer a vivid picture of what has happened to each school's past graduates. Principals and teachers can see how many of their students matriculated to college, what kinds of colleges they went to, and how many are still enrolled. Students who attend CUNY are tracked even more carefully. High schools can see how many students required remedial courses, their average GPA, and how many credits students took and passed. With this information, "college readiness" is no longer a vague term. Teachers and principals now know whether their academic preparation and college guidance is working--or not. (See "Turning High School Graduates into College Graduates," page 10.)

School leaders are taking steps to improve college and career preparation: Principals in the College Ready Communities high schools struggled with budget cuts, teacher turnover and students who arrived as freshmen poorly prepared for high school work. Yet most of these principals strive to meet the new college-focused mandates that the city has set out for them in the annual Progress Report. For example, one College Ready Communities high school, the Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, struggles to graduate even half of its new-immigrant students on time--yet, nonetheless, the school has added Advanced Placement and higher-level math courses in an effort to provide more rigorous options for students who seek them out. We see in such schools that principals, including some in small schools with smaller teaching staffs, are attempting an academic balancing act by offering catch-up courses for struggling learners as well as higher-level courses for students who need and deserve solid college preparation. (See "Creating College Counselors," page 34.)

 

WHAT'S MISSING: ACADEMICS AND ATTENTION TO THE COLLEGE DREAM

The Department of Education's efforts are a good start. However, they do little to address the "aspirations gap" and the challenges that low-income students face as they attempt to manage the steep demands of high school and begin to think about college and what they want to get out of it. The Center's experience observing the collaborative work that took place between the schools and nonprofits in College Ready Communities was particularly illuminating on this point. Here are a few of the most important things we learned in our surveys and analysis:

In low-income high schools, struggling readers are frequently the norm. This has major implications for teachers trying to get students to read and write at a college level.

Developing true college-preparatory academic skills is implausible when students can't read well: A Center for New York City Affairs analysis of ELA test scores determined that only 39 percent of eighth graders met state standards for reading in 2012. In our College Ready Communities schools, which serve almost exclusively low-income students, struggling readers were the norm--more than 80 percent of these students had scored below grade level on their eighth grade tests in 2010. This, obviously, has major implications for teachers trying to get students to the point where they can read and write at a college level. It also presents a challenge for science and social studies teachers who, in an ideal world, would assign material from grade-level textbooks. Instead, these teachers present the facts in class and avoid reading assignments. "Reading is fundamental" to college readiness, one teacher told us in a survey. "Yet, most of my students dislike reading and make no effort to read, either for recreation or for coursework." (See "High Hopes...Fragile Expectation," page 18.)

Both teachers and students are frustrated with the level of teaching and learning: Students were appreciative of how supportive their teachers were, but many, in a candid set of focus groups, told researchers they were bored with their classes. "It's almost like a review of what we learned... in eighth grade," said one 10th grader. "Every teacher wants you to get a better grade, but they don't force you," said another. In surveys, teachers did not dispute this, noting that classes were mostly focused on making sure students understood the material they needed to pass New York State's Regents exams, which are required for graduation. The graduation mandate was more important than creating rigorous demands or exposing students to college-level work, some said. Wrote one teacher: "Too much energy is spent on short-term passing--and not enough energy on long-term college planning." (See "High Hopes...Fragile Expectations," page 18.)

Early attention to college academics and career dreams could inspire harder work: To some degree, high school teachers are boxed in by the academic abilities of their high school students. If more students were fully prepared for ninth grade, high school classes could be more fast-paced and rigorous. The level of academics clearly must improve from kindergarten through eighth grade. The Department of Education is counting on the new Common Core standards to help accomplish this. Students will also have to be willing partners as schools attempt to impose more rigorous demands upon them. An obvious step is to have honest conversations about careers and college much earlier, ideally beginning in sixth grade. Guidance counselors and students tell us that most young people don't become serious about college until 11th grade--and by then, it is too late to do genuine college preparation. The Department of Education should consider providing a formal grade 6 to 12 curriculum on career and college planning and guidance, and work to create a "college culture" in the public schools that incorporates high expectations and richer, more thoughtful assignments for all students. (See "Bringing College 101 to the Cassroom," page 35.)

First-generation college students require high-quality professional help with the college search: Getting the help of a professional guidance counselor is tough enough: a majority of high schools in NYC have guidance caseloads ranging from 100 to 300 students per counselor. The challenge is even more daunting given that these counselors typically have many other responsibilities--and are often not fully trained to be college counselors. (See "Guidance Counselor Caseloads Vary Widely," page 31.)

The need for high-quality help was particularly apparent in our College Ready Communities schools, where the nonprofit partner groups stepped in to provide essential assistance to students in the application process: Surveys revealed that students and families were justifiably confused and intimidated by the torrent of demands, deadlines and decisions associated with applying to college. Overloaded school guidance counselors can offer a few workshops and make sure their students fill out a CUNY common application. But others, like the College Ready Communities nonprofits or teachers in the school, provided crucial extra time to help students with college visits and financial aid--not to mention other demands, like writing essays and taking the SATs, associated with applying to more competitive colleges. This extra person-power and expertise is particularly important if students seek to avoid New York City's overloaded community college system, where graduation rates are so poor. There is a legitimate debate over whether all schools require a full-time college counselor, but almost everyone interviewed by the Center on this project agreed that schools need high-intensity college guidance of some kind. (See "College Counselors Count," page 29.)

There is debate over the need for college counselors, but almost everyone interviewed agreed that schools need high-intensity college guidance of some kind.

Finally, the missing player in this report's discussion is, of course, the many colleges in which New York City students enroll with great hope, only to quickly drop out. Guidance counselors and nonprofit workers are particularly rankled by how hard it is to compare seemingly simple things at CUNY such as graduation rates, the quality of remedial classes and institutional supports for low-income students. The Center's conversations for this report started with the high schools but inevitably led to the colleges. Both the New York City Department of Education and CUNY have made great strides over the past decade in improving their data sharing and developing effective partnership programs. But these two institutions must continue to work together to provide stronger college preparation for students along with a bridge to an equally strong set of college classes and supports. Then we may finally see New York City's impressive new generation of graduates succeeding as they ought to, prepared for both college and the growing challenges of the workplace.

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