The Chancellor for the City University of New York said the system’s new vision for increasing access and graduation rates for students would help renew a broader national understanding of the importance for attaining a higher education, while a panel discussion of higher ed administrators, students and state lawmakers discussed an array of topics at City & State’s 2017 “On Education” Conference held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City on Wednesday.
CUNY Chancellor James Milliken said the system had to understand that there was no longer such a thing as a ‘traditional’ college student, with an average student age of 24, 40% of whom were first-generation learners and 50% of whom had come from families with an annual income of $20,000 or less.
“Despite the polls, and despite what some in Silicon Valley might suggest, there’s never been a time in history where higher ed is more important than it is today. It can be the difference between being well-employed or under/unemployed,” he said, noting college graduates tend to make $1 million more over a lifetime than high school graduates.
Milliken detailed “Connected CUNY,” a new set of guiding principles he said would work to establish stronger partnerships between education officials, state and local government and private industry as a means to widen access and affordability for potential students. Milliken cited Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to offer free tuition for students to attend CUNY or State University of New York schools. The plan, known as the Excelsior Scholarship, is offered to any student living in New York coming from a family making under $125,000 a year. The students must be NYS residents, attend a two or four-year degree program taking 30 credits in each calendar year, and must be prepared to live and work in the state for the length of time they attend school following graduation.
“Success is still too stubbornly correlated with wealth in this country,” he said, noting that Ivy League colleges drew 15% of their students from families in the top 1% of wealth in the country, with only 10% of students earning a Bachelor’s degree by age 24 coming from the bottom quarter of income. “How do we even the playing field? These statistics are not just startling, but wholly unacceptable in a country that claims to treasure opportunity.”
Milliken said he was committed to doubling the completion rate for students at CUNY within the coming years, but critics have been skeptical about some of the stringent requirements of the Excelsior plan and are worried it will be ineffectual in helping the students most in need. Though the scholarship will cover tuition costs, it will not assist students with room-and-board costs, which can be particularly challenging for students from a low-income background (and especially different for the CUNY schools that are located in a city with extremely high rental costs that continue to climb). Additionally, the credit requirements demand that students attend school full-time, making it more difficult for students with full-time or part-time jobs and families to qualify.
Following Milliken’s presentation, panelists in a discussion on the opportunities and challenges facing the state’s higher education system reiterated concerns about how much the Excelsior Scholarship program would alleviate the weight of affordability on New York’s most burdened families, while expressing cautious optimism that the lessons learned from the first year in which the program is rolled out will help them better prepare to serve students in the coming years. State Assemblyman Edward Ra said that the scholarship program had come at the same time as a proposed tuition increase, which could mean that low-income students who do not qualify for the program can be further affected.
SUNY Chancellor H. Carl McCall said that with the Excelsior Scholarship Grant, Pell Grants and other forms of aid, CUNY and SUNY costs were beginning to become more affordable. Chika Onyejiuka, the chairwoman for CUNY’s University Student Senate, noted that the Excelsior Scholarship was limited in its impact on working students and students from low-income backgrounds, but the program had spurred a debate about the state's continued divestment from higher education, a trend not limited to New York.
“We need an investment in infrastructure. We need faculty members paid a livable wage,” she said. “The only way to have all that is to have the commitment from the legislature year to year, that it’s not always going to be a dance.”
Onyejiuka expressed hope that the system could expand the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative, which helps students earn Associate degrees within three years through advisement, career counseling, tuition and fee waivers and financial help for ancillary costs like textbooks. CUNY officials also help students as they near graduation, helping them to transfer to a four-year institution or begin work. Milliken also spoke out in support for ASAP expansion, saying he was frustrated by critics constantly arguing that ASAP was a strong program but was not scaleable; he said he hoped to prove them wrong.
The panelists also briefly touched upon the impact President Donald Trump’s administration could potentially have on higher education initatives in the state, with McCall noting Trump had not really said much directly regarding higher ed. He expressed concern about the potential loss in funding for research universities (the cut was not included in Congress’ proposed budget but could reappear), and numerous panelists spoke in support of DACA students that had enrolled in higher ed institutions and were fearful about their status.