New York

NYC’s new schools chancellor should make college success matter

The most important item on the next New York City school's chancellor’s to-do list is hardly being discussed: preparing vastly more students to succeed in college, argue Tom Hilliard and Matt A.V. Chaban of the Center for an Urban Future.

Mayor Bill de Blasio Carmen Fariña

Mayor Bill de Blasio Carmen Fariña Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio continues the hunt for a schools chancellor who’s actually up to the task, he knows he has a tough job to fill. The new chancellor will take charge of the city’s largest agency, responsible for serving 1.1 million students, overseeing 66,000 employees and managing a $3.1 billion budget. The candidate will also be expected to lift the high school graduation rate – currently at an all-time high of 74 percent – still higher.

It’s a rare moment when the city’s attention is focused on what it takes to lead the city’s schools. Yet the most important item on the next chancellor’s to-do list is hardly being discussed: preparing vastly more students to succeed in college.

Getting the city’s students through college, not just to it, needs to be a higher priority than it’s ever been for New York’s schools chancellor. In today’s economy, a college credential has become the single most important ticket to the middle class. As it stands, far too few New Yorkers have one – in part, because an alarmingly high share of students graduate city high schools unprepared to succeed in college. Turning this around will require a sustained effort in the pre-K-to-12 system.

New York City has a reputation for being one of the nation’s most educated cities. But more than 3.3 million city residents lack even an associate’s degree, putting New York well behind many other U.S. cities, including Washington, San Francisco, Boston and Denver. Three-quarters of the city’s on-time high school graduates enroll in college the next fall. The problem is, a majority of them are dropping out without earning a credential.

At CUNY community colleges, only 22 percent of students earn an associate’s degree in three years. At the senior colleges, just over half obtain a bachelor’s degree after six years.

The next chancellor has a vital role to play in boosting college success – from expanding college counselling and overhauling the way New York teaches math, to building college-going cultures in every high school, to collaborating with community-based organizations in neighborhoods across the city to build a stronger support network for students.

In part because of the city’s success in boosting the high school graduation rate, more students are arriving at CUNY who are the first in their families to enroll in college – nearly half of all CUNY undergraduates. But navigating the college-going process is a minefield for families without previous experience. That’s why college counselors at the high school level are so essential for helping students navigate admissions and financial aid, understand potential career paths and choose a college that matches their ambitions and practical needs.

Access to college counselling is far too limited. The city does not track the number of college counselors specifically, since college preparation is often just one of a counselor’s many responsibilities. But the average student-to-counselor ratio citywide is 224 to 1, and as high as 900 to 1 in some high schools. Those ratios strain the ability of staff to provide consistent, personalized support, and suggest only a fraction of students are getting the college counselling they need. The next chancellor should insist on having a dedicated college counselor in every high school, and ensure that those counselors are at the heart of a school-wide college-going culture. The city also needs to build support for young people in the crucial summer after high school graduation. Today, counselors go on summer break without reinforcements, even as graduates struggle to keep up with the paperwork and fees necessary to enroll in college.

The next chancellor also needs to lead the city in rethinking math education. More than half of all first-year students entering a CUNY associate’s degree program – some 13,000 – place into a remedial math course; six in ten of those students drop out within the next two years. Students need more consistent and practical math education in all four years of high school, along with plenty of opportunities to take advanced courses. A stronger foundation in middle school is equally essential. Today, progress is halting: In 2017, only 38 percent of the city’s 8th graders passed the state’s Common Core math exam.

The city cannot tackle its college success problem without help. A new chancellor should look beyond the walls of DOE for partners, particularly within the vast network of community-based organizations that understand the neighborhoods in which they operate and have earned the trust of community members. The city can do much more to leverage the potential of these organizations to help boost college completion and coordinate their efforts in every school.

Above all, the chancellor should set a college success goal. The only way to mobilize the city’s educational leaders around college success is to define clear metrics for success, and promote those metrics with the same intensity that the Department of Education currently reserves only for the high school graduation rate.

De Blasio and his administration deserve top marks for boosting high school graduation rates. But the mayor should make college success a key part of the next chancellor’s mission.

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