CUNY investment can spark equitable economic recovery

Mayoral candidates need a plan to help students from low-income families go to college.

Mayor de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City’s mayoral primary has been dominated by the candidates’ positions on fighting crime, addressing quality of life issues and how best to bring back the city’s cultural and economic vitality.

But without significant investments and innovation in our K-12 and higher education systems, there will be no sustained and significant improvements in the city’s economic health and on matters concerning quality of life.A recent study by the city comptroller’s office found that CUNY graduates working in New York state earned $57 billion in 2019 and paid an estimated $4.2 billion in state income taxes.

To make a substantial difference, our next mayor needs to capitalize on two formidable assets: the New York City Department of Education and The City University of New York, the two largest education systems of their kind in the country.

The DOE and CUNY serve heavily overlapping populations: Roughly 60% of the DOE’s college-going graduates attend a CUNY college and nearly 80% of first-time freshmen at CUNY are graduates of DOE schools. Almost one-third of the DOE’s new teachers each year are CUNY-prepared, and a majority of the DOE workforce has a CUNY degree. In his heralded study of higher education as a catalyst for economic mobility, economist Raj Chetty found that CUNY lifted almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond than all eight Ivy League colleges and a handful of other elite private universities combined.

CUNY and New York City’s K-12 public schools have collaborated through such joint programs asCollege & Career Bridge for All, which trains CUNY students to serve as advisers to college-bound DOE graduates, helping them overcome the many obstacles that can stand in the way of their matriculation.

Although we work alongside in true partnership, there is much more that can be done. Here are some of the actionable items the next mayor could move to implement immediately:

  • Expand and institutionalize early college high schools in the city, such as Hostos Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx and Brooklyn College Academy. These unscreened schools, which are fully representative of the ethnic, racial, demographic and academic diversity of our city’s students, have far higher on-time graduation rates – 89%, exceeding the DOE average of 77.3% in 2019 – and have students graduate with an average of 29 college credits. Scaling-up early college schools might be one of the most cost-effective ways to have students of color graduate on time and accumulate college credits. Unfortunately, the funding for early college programs comes from grants, such as the “Smart Scholars” grant. This must be changed; the new mayoral administration should explore funding models like the ones used in North Carolina and Texas, in which a combination of state designations for early colleges and automatic supplemental funds allow schools to plan sustainably to maintain and grow enrollments, which would allow for thousands more students to benefit.
  • Provide all 10th and 11th graders, and their parents, a personalized college and career report, a practice that is already being successfully utilized by Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other big-city districts to equalize access and opportunity to higher ed. The reports would provide up-to-date information about students’ fulfillment of course requirements, college readiness benchmarks and potential college and career opportunities based on their current academic performance and career exploration activities. The middle high school grades are a critical time to provide support to students who need help – and, in turn, limit the need for remedial courses in college – while also affording academically strong students options for more rigorous coursework through Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment classes.
  • Significantly expand programs to recruit and retain more teachers of color, focusing on computer science and tech-related fields. The city has made recent gains through programs like CS4All in expanding K-12 tech education, but it is lagging in creating a pipeline of teachers that would allow programs like this and others to scale to the level the city needs. The new mayor should create a dedicated teacher-training program for underrepresented groups aimed at computer science, digital literacy and tech, including financial incentives for these teachers to remain in our schools.
  • Ideas now taking hold about free community college need to be reframed under a K-14 perspective, in which college-bound students have the same support they receive in K-12 to defray the significant expense of their meals, books and transportation. We know these three items derail so many bright community college students even when their tuition is paid. This could be a real game changer for students. CUNY has already seen the impact of those supports through our nationally recognized ASAP program, which, through the provision of those and other supports has more than doubled timely associate degree graduation rates for participating students and become a nationally recognized model.

The candidates will be wasting an opportunity if they do not put education front and center in the last mayoral debate. The next mayor needs to pledge to restore any funding cuts to CUNY’s seven community colleges currently proposed in the city’s budget, which would seriously imperil their capacity to be responsive to the needs of employers, nonprofits and government. In the final week of the campaign, New Yorkers deserve to hear concrete plans from all the candidates regarding how they will prioritize K-12 and higher education investment and innovation.