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The Question I'm Asked the Most

The Question I'm Asked the Most

Whenever I give a talk or workshop, there is one question I'm almost always asked:  "Why did you move from Duke, where you spent most of your career, to CUNY?".  

The implicit question people are really asking:  "How could you move from an elite, expensive, Top Ten private research university to a sprawling, public, vastly underfunded urban university system where some of the 24 campuses are, in effect, open admissions?"  

It is hard to imagine two more vastly different approaches to higher education. And I hasten to add that I love both, and feel honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to teach at both.

My appointment is at the CUNY Graduate Center where I"m founding director of the Futures Initiative which includes programs for undergraduates from across all of CUNY, who are students at both our two- and four -year colleges. The twenty-four colleges in the CUNY system range from selective, urban colleges to virtually open admissions colleges. Some of our campuses have stunning demographics: nearly 70 percent first generation college students, 70 percent first generation American, and 70 percent below the poverty line. At LaGuardia Community college, there are more "first languages" spoken than there are official first languages in the world, it is said. The hallways are a linguist's delight: one can hear various local, dialects across some 140 languages.  Some students are college age, some are returning students. Even when I teach a graduate class, I expect the age range to be 22 to retirement age and all points in between. Diversity? Diversity is CUNY's DNA.

And that is the first reason I made the move: I wanted to learn more about what college is really like today, not what one kind of college is really like.

Almost all books and studies of college are, implicitly, based on the idea of the residential, four-year college or university where students attend school full-time.  But only about 60% of students are actually "full-time college students."  Nearly half work at least thirty hours a week, and a quarter are both full-time students hold down full-time jobs.

There are so many books and articles about "higher education"--its future, its problems, its faculty, its students--that are researched and written by scholars whose sole perspective is that of the elite research university.  Having taught at such a university for some two decades, I can always spot those whose view of college is "Ivies Plus" (Ivy Leagues plus a few others like Stanford or Duke).  That means many studies of "college students" are based on assumptions about the 0.5% of college students at these elite universities.

No wonder so much of our "data" about college is wrong, impartial, negative, and sometimes punitive in tone: why aren't these students trying any more? why are they failing? Etc. 

Pronouncements about often college presume to be about "all" of higher education but they write from the perspective of what one of my friends calls "the velvet tunnel," a narrow perspective that is so comfortable, so protected from the world, that most people who live within it have no idea that there is another world outside it.I have read hundreds of articles and books about every aspect of higher education and most are given to pronouncements from the perspective of those within the velvet tunnel. 

A recent example is an important study by Fabia T. Pfeffer, "Growing Wealth Gaps in Education."  The study was reported on by the excellent New York Times education commentator David Leonardt (March 25, 2018) who reiterates (as he regularly does; thank you, Mr. Leonardt!) on the incredible benefits of a college degree: higher employment, wages, long-term health, life satisfaction, all that! And those benefits soar every year.

Then he delivers the "bad news" of Pfeffer's study about the abysmal graduation rates for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. He looks at the cohort of students that were born in the 1970s versus those in the 1980s and finds that the graduation rate of wealthy students improved from 46% to 60%, of middle-income students from 25 to 32%, but, for the poorest students, the increase is only from 11.3% to 11.8%. 

The tone of the article (and I'm sure this is not the intention of the researchers) is that these poor students just can't cut it: they have poor backgrounds, they aren't prepared, they have competing claims on their time.  All of this is absolutely true and needs attention--and could be remedied.

But--and this is why I moved to CUNY--what I see every day with the students in our CUNY programs is that virtually everything about their lives seems designed to crush their ability to stay in school. 

If the completion rate for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds is the same now as it was a decade ago, as an educator I count this as a tragedy and am very proud of programs at CUNY, such as the astonishing ASAP program that has doubled graduation rates. 

As a person, spending every day among CUNY students, however, I am in awe that anyone without a family supporting them graduates at all. It's a miracle that the rate has risen that small percentage point given all of the increasing not decreasing challenges college students without means face today.

Given the escalating tuition cost of college, given the escalating costs of every day life, given the plummeting wages especially for those without a college degree, that the same number of students make it through four years of college is a triumph and a miracle.  Everything about the economics of the last decade should mean that the number of graduates, especially from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, is plummeting.  That it stays level, even if more students are entering, is a testament to the valor and persistence of the students, their advisers, their professors and their families.

Would I have known how to deconstruct such a story before I taught at CUNY?  Maybe. Would I have felt it in my gut, felt passionately and with total admiration, what it means to struggle against the odds a typical CUNY undergraduate student faces every day before coming to CUNY?  Certainly not the way I do now, viscerally, every single day.

Whenever I read a story about affluent families taking their kids on "college tours" to find best fit as if this is a "typical" story, I am reminded how often in our society the affluent and privileged "represent" the norm and the normal.  Most students in U.S. colleges today attend community colleges or other public colleges within a commute of their homes. 

Not only are my CUNY students not going around to this or that campus to find the best "fit," their lives, on a day to day level, are almost entirely different than the lives of students I taught at an elite, private, residential university. My CUNY students typically they live at home, help contribute to their families, and work over 30 hours a week, many at not one but two part-time jobs whose schedules must be juggled around school schedules, unreliable subway schedules, and everything else.

I know CUNY students who wake up at 4 am every day and go to their first part-time, minimum wage job. Then they take the Metro to campus and take the two classes that will fit within their schedule, even if it doesn't quite fit their major requirements, then they rush out of class, get on the subway, and make it on time to a second minimum wage, part-time job.

We wonder about graduation rates?  I don't.  Except with awe that anyone has the stamina and determination to stick with college, despite everything working as a dis-incentive to that struggle and ambition.

I came to CUNY because I realized my own understanding of college today was deficient, based on the small percentage of students who go away to college, live on campus, work only a few hours a week or not at all, have a full and rich social life that helps motivate their school loyalty and reinforces the value of college. Those campuses devout extraordinary effort to insuring their students graduate on time. They offer advising, psychological counseling, an array of supports, and the (way over-rated and over-discussed) "amenities" one hears about like gyms with climbing walls. That graduation rates have increased for students in such situations is not surprising given the ideology of college has changed. 

Thirty years ago, the opening talk by every Dean of Students was: "look to the left, look to the right, only one of you will be walking through graduation in four years": the ideology of colleges taking pride in flunking students out.  Now, as a society, we have tacitly admitted that college is necessary to a middle-class life and college rankings are partly based on your percentage of students graduating in four years.  Plus, as state and federal funding decreases and tuitions soar, every student who drops out of college is revenue lost. The ideology now at well-funded institutions is to pay attention to students who might seem to be failing or losing interest and intervening early to support them and insure their success.

I loved teaching at Duke and I loved my Duke students. We had hundreds, maybe thousands, of full, deep rich conversations over the course of more than twenty years there about their life, their goals, their future.  Most anticipated graduation--facing and thriving in the real world--with both fear and excitement.  

Now I have those conversations with my CUNY students but with a crucial difference. They live every single day in the real world, with no buffering by a sheltering and isolated campus designed to create barriers between students and the world. Full-time, residential students face real  problems too, of course.  We are becoming increasingly aware that many, even at our most elite campuses, also face food and housing insecurity. 

But those issues are every day issues for many CUNY students. And still they thrive. And still, against almost unthinkable odds, many graduate.

So why do programs like the remarkable ASAP work?  Because they have an awareness of what it means to be a student like the one I've described here, juggling jobs and family obligations and school. ASAP is a program that (in the phrase of my colleague Kandice Chuh) addresses "the people in our classrooms who are students."  It looks at what makes life hard for those people in order to help them succeed as students. 

Its features include: Classes available at unusual times for full-time students but life savers for those holding down jobs--Saturday morning classes, late night classes, some hybrid and online classes for those who cannot make an onsite class (and offered with actual, human--not bot--supports). ASAP offers clear requirements and courses designed to meet those requirements (less choice, more directedness) to help students finish their degree. Good advising. And then material helps: Metro cards, free books, and short-term loans (because a Pell check lost in the mail can mean an eviction--and dropping out of school to pick up more work wherever one can).  It's a great investment, a cost-saver for CUNY, and it has increased graduation rates by 50%.

It's a program that works because it is designed by insiders, by those who work every day with CUNY students, who talk to CUNY students about their actual needs, and who have reconceived higher education with those needs in mind, testing everything against the standard way to see what works, what does not, and building on success.

So, in the end, that's the answer to the question I'm asked most often.  Why did I move from Duke to CUNY? Because I am passionately concerned about the future of higher education and how we can best serve students in order that they can address the dismal and distressing challenges of the world they have inherited from us--and I do not believe anyone can seriously, honestly, answer that question if the only students we know are the .05%. 

I spent most of my career as an insider at one kind of university. I am now learning, on the inside, from a far more common one. I am in awe of the excellence and dedication of the students and the faculty at both places--but, at CUNY, there is no question that the bar is set incomparably higher for everyone. Even with gloriously successful programs such as ASAP, it is difficult to graduate against all the odds and obstacles of everyday life, soaring income inequality, rampant labor exploitation. The sacrifices students face, the exceptional dedication of faculty (including graduate students and part-time adjunct faculty who deserve far more compensation than they can make at a public, urban, underfunded institution)are awe-inspiring.  CUNY's economic contribution to the city of New York is greater than any other single entity--including Wall Street.  This truly is public education for the public good--not least because our students are "the public."

If I have ideas about the future of education and education reform, they are now designed for students , not for an extrapolation from one kind of elite student in one kind of very special and supportive environment where everything is designed to aid their success.

Most of the researchers on higher education desperately need to spend time at many different kinds of institutions, understanding the life stresses of students today before they design their next research studies, make their next judgments about the "state" of higher education, or give their next "prescriptions" for how to fix it. 

They are also advocated with humility, with an understanding that only those within  those institutions truly know the obstacles and goals of the students they serve, the infrastructure capacities of their institution, the funding levels of their institution,the work load and compensation of their full and part-time faculty, and the flexibility possible within their institution to relieve some of that workload in order that faculty can work with students and administrators to create exciting, innovative new programs that have equity at the core.  It is simply hubris to prescribe change for someone else, without knowing their challenges and opportunities. 

Far too many advocates of "reform" are good at telling others what to do, without ever having tried to change anything substantial themselves.

I made the move from Duke to CUNY because, like every good teacher, I'm still a student. In the last three and a half years, I've learned enormously from my students and colleagues. And I've learned appreciation, humility, and a deep sense of how very much more I have to learn. 


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