College Readiness

Liu says city should pay CUNY tuition for top high school grads

john-liu-uft
Comptroller John Liu visited UFT headquarters after being elected in 2009. Today, Liu proposed new education and economic policies, including the "community schools" model the UFT favors.

The city should ease the path to college for top high school students by promising them free tuition at city colleges, Comptroller John Liu said today in a “State of the City” speech, his second in 2012.

In the speech, Liu put forth a slate of policy proposals, including several focused on education, that he said would enhance the city’s economic future. Liu is a likely mayoral candidate, but as comptroller his job is to safeguard the city’s financial prospects.

“The offer of free tuition would help motivate students and elevate CUNY, one of our city’s most valuable gems, to the level of a competitive prize,” Liu said, according to his prepared remarks. “It would also be a life-saver for many working families who are struggling to send their kids to college.”

Liu did not explain how the city could fund the initiative, but it would not cost much. With tuition set at $5,400 a year, even if every student in the top 10 percent of each graduating class enrolled and would not ordinarily receive financial aid — an unlikely scenario — paying their way would cost less than $12 million a year.

Other proposals Liu made today would cost the city a lot more.

He proposed spending $75 million a year to provide home visits by nurses to thousands of needy families with young children, $32 million a year to give computers to students at high-poverty middle schools, and $176 million a year to add more guidance counselors to city high schools. Liu first proposed expanding the city’s fleet of guidance counselors in October, arguing that the expenditure would pay for itself with economic contributions from people who would not have gone to college without the counselors’ help.

And he said he would add social services to every city school, something the teachers union and city are jointly attempting in six schools this year, at a price tag of $100,000 a school. Liu said the proposal was inspired by a trip he took with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to Cincinnati, which has embraced the “community schools” model that the union has been promoting.

“I’d like to see every New York City public school become a community center before and after school,” Liu said. “In addition to after-school programs, it could include a health clinic, and offer resources to parents and adults in the evenings, like tax advisory services and financial literacy courses.”

Most mayoral candidates were slow to respond to Liu’s proposals today. But Tom Allon, whose candidacy as a Republican suffered a blow this week with the possible entrance to the race of former MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota, said he supported Liu’s call for a tuition break for top students and noted that it would require only a small expenditure. “Anything we can do to incentivize high school students to graduate and achieve high grades is a good public policy in my book,” Allon said.

The portion of Liu’s speech that focused on education is below:

We’ve discussed how we can make our workplaces and our tax code more equitable. Now we need to talk about how to get our young people into the workplace and how to develop our future workforce and taxpayers.

This requires a “cradle-to-career” approach in order to avoid a “school-to-prison” pipeline. There has been a lot of talk in this City about improving high school graduation rates. And that’s a good thing.

But as we all know, in today’s complex economy, it takes a college degree to make a decent living.

Yet four out of five New York City public high school students do not graduate from college. Let me repeat: four out of five of our high school students do not graduate from college.

In order to maintain New York City’s economic viability, we must work to increase the proportion of New Yorkers with either an associates or a bachelor’s degree from where it is now, at 42 percent, to 60 percent by the year 2025.

New York City should be the education capital of the country. Right now, we lag behind Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. It’s time we reverse New York’s education gap and put our public schools back on track.

Earlier this year, along with Speaker Quinn, and many of our City’s teachers, I visited the school system in Cincinnati.

I was very impressed by what I saw there.

Cincinnati, a city that is home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, takes a holistic approach to education, an approach we can learn a lot from.

We know, from our own research, that we have to start early; even before formal education begins. In fact, in certain situations, even before children are born.

The Nurse Family Partnership provides critical in-home prenatal care for Medicaid- eligible firsttime mothers, and continues parental support for up to 2 years after a child is born.

For less than $75 million annually we can expand this program in NYC from the 2,400 families  it now serves to 14,500 families.

And what does the Nurse Family Partnership do? It results in higher scores on children’s reading and math achievement tests. It produces a 67 percent reduction in behavioral and intellectual problems per child at age 6. It improves a child’s cognitive ability and language development and reduces language delays.

In short, it makes kids from struggling families better able to handle school.

The initial Nurse Family Partnership program in Elmira, N.Y., is now on track to save as much as $4 in taxpayer money for every dollar the program costs.

Now that’s what I call a real return on investment.

Once children are in school, we need to continue to partner with their families. When our Secretary of State was first lady she said: “It takes a village to raise a child.” And she was right.

By the way, I think the world of Secretary Clinton and eagerly await her announcement to jump into the New York City mayoral race…

But seriously, families need to know that there is support for them in the community. That there are people who care. That’s why I’d like to see every New York City public school become a community center before and after school. In addition to after-school programs, it could include a health clinic, and offer resources to parents and adults in the evenings, like tax advisory services and financial literacy courses.

We know that middle school is a particularly vulnerable time for kids. So we need to do more to support our middle school students. In fact, my son Joey is in middle school.

We are privileged today by the presence of a group of very impressive fifth and sixth graders from PS 45 in South Ozone Park, Queens. These kids are on the student council and are here with their principal, Samantha Severin. Please stand up and say hello to everyone. Thank you for coming.

Middle school students often need extra help. That is why I believe we need to expand the Computers for Youth program to every public middle school in New York City where at least 75 percent of the students receive free lunch.

Computers for Youth provides refurbished computers, pre-loaded with educational software, to 6th graders. The program teaches these students and their families how to use the computers. And we can expand this program for only $32 million annually. In today’s day and age, no child, regardless of their family’s income, should live without a computer and internet access in their home.

We also know that guidance counselors are particularly important for college success. Best practices advise that guidance counselors have caseloads no larger than 100.

But in the New York City public schools the average is 259 students to one counselor, and many of our counselors are struggling to care for more than 400 students on their own.

I proposed in October that we change the current unmanageable ratio from 259 students to 100 students per counselor. This will cost $176 million, or about $2,000 per high school student. We already spend $227,000 on every New York City public school child’s education, kindergarten through twelfth grade. Why not give that child the best chance to succeed, for just another $2,000 per kid?

And there are other things we can do. We know from the great results at some of the newest specialized high schools: American Studies at Lehman College as well as Math, Science, and Engineering at City College, that putting a high school on a college campus can create wonderful synergies.

Why can’t we do this for every New York City public high school? We don’t have to move the schools. We can create “sister college” relationships for every high school with the many terrific colleges and universities we have right here in New York City.

We happen to have with us today a class of 12th-grade government students from one of New York City’s historic high schools, Abraham Lincoln in Coney Island. They are here with their teacher, Ellen Levitt. Can you all stand up?

We are also honored to have Mr. George Israel here with us today. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln 64 years ago. George, can you stand up?

There is a lot we can do to make sure our kids graduate from college. In addition to the Macaulay Honors Program that already exists at CUNY, we can and should offer free CUNY tuition to the top 10 percent of New York City public high school graduates. Top graduates from every New York City high school should be eligible for this program.

The offer of free tuition would help motivate students and elevate CUNY, one of our City’s most valuable gems, to the level of a competitive prize. It would also be a life-saver for many working families who are struggling to send their kids to college. We must do more to make college affordable.

Let’s bring diversity to New York City’s Specialized High Schools, so that every child has access to an elite education and the privileges that go with it.

Let’s help President Obama, who has worked so hard for all of us, pass the DREAM Act so that immigrants can pursue a higher education.

As many of you know, I came to this country as a five-year-old from Taiwan who didn’t speak a word of English. And if it wasn’t for the great public school teachers I had at PS 203 in Flushing and at Hunter High School and at Bronx Science, I would never be where I am today.

In addition to benefiting from a first-rate New York City public school education, I had a tightknit family and community behind me, supporting me every step of the way.

We need to reweave the fabric of our communities and neighborhoods so that we catch every kid before they fall.

That’s the way we will minimize gun violence on our streets.

That’s the way we will get every kid to earn a college degree.

That’s the way we can help every New Yorker achieve their full potential.

No Strings Attached?

Gov. Cuomo is proposing free college tuition, but are his plan’s rules too strict?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

As a freshman at City College last fall, Saad Ahmed stopped by his advisor’s office for what he thought was a routine meeting — until he found out he had lost all his state financial aid for the semester.

He thought it was a mistake, but it wasn’t.

Although he should have received about $2,000 per semester under the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, he unknowingly took a history class he didn’t need to graduate. Since TAP only covers courses applicable to a student’s “program of study,” he was suddenly one credit shy of the required course load.

“It was obviously frustrating because I lost the money, but it wasn’t my fault,” he said.

Ahmed is not alone. TAP has strict requirements about which courses, and how many courses, students must take in order to keep their aid. The “Excelsior Scholarship” — Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new plan to provide free college tuition at state schools to families making less than $125,000 a year — does too. The new scholarship, as it is currently configured, carries over some of TAP’s regulations, and some of its rules would be even more stringent.

The governor’s office, and many supporters, argue that cases like Ahmed’s are rare. Officials said they will try to address any problems with state financial aid, and that Excelsior’s additional regulations are intended to encourage on-time graduation.

But advocates say that argument misses a larger, structural issue with the state’s financial aid system: The more rules there are, the more chances there are for students to get tripped up. That ranges from seemingly innocuous mistakes like forgetting to count college credits obtained in high school, to situations in which students have to drop classes in order to support family members.

“How many 18-years-olds do you know that know exactly what they want to be when they grow up and don’t stumble and fall a little bit?” asked Susan Mead, director of financial aid at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. “Unless we have a parachute to catch them while they’re having difficulties, they’ll end up going out the exit door.”

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New York offers one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation, but stringent rules have historically limited the pool of students who can benefit. Under the current TAP rules, students have to maintain 12 credits per semester and those credits must count toward a student’s program of study. Excelsior ups that requirement to an average of 15 credits per semester.

The idea of asking students to take only courses applicable to their study area is designed to discourage students from taking ones won’t help them get a degree. But the requirement is applied unevenly across colleges, said Victoria Hulit, a college success director at Let’s Get Ready, a program that helps low-income students finish college.

“In theory, it sounds great. We want our kids to get degrees. But the way that TAP regulates it, it gets a little bit tricky,” Hulit said. “We didn’t even realize [TAP] was a thing until kids started losing it.”

For instance, Hulit knows one student who decided he wanted to switch majors from forensic science to fire science. He took a semester of fire science courses, but hadn’t technically switched his major in time for those courses to count for TAP. He lost all of his aid for the semester, she said.

Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College, where Cuomo announced his support for a free college tuition proposal, said that some of these problems can be solved by better tracking of credits on the part of students and schools. Sometimes, students say there are no courses available, but either they don’t want to wake up for an 8 a.m. class or the class conflicts with work. (Her students, for instance, sometimes work the night shift at LaGuardia Airport, she said.)

Schools are under pressure to make sure students meet each of the requirements. An auditor from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office confirmed that they frequently audit TAP rules at colleges and prevent schools from providing aid to students not considered full-time.

Hulit estimates she knows about 20 students who have lost TAP funding. Though that is only a small fraction of the students she’s worked with, she says more often counselors caught students right before they made a mistake. In many cases, she said, students simply lost funding because they did not meet TAP’s academic or credit accumulation requirements.

That’s where the Excelsior Scholarship is even more stringent than TAP. The scholarship requires students to average 15 credits per semester and finish in two academic years for an associate’s degree or four years for a bachelor’s.

“The way to make college a greater success — more success and completion — is more full-time faculty, more opportunity for a large number of class sections,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the higher education committee. “That is the way to improve the end result. Not putting a gun to their head.”

There are exceptions, according to officials from the governor’s office. Students could take 12 credits one semester and make up classes the next, but they will still have to average 15 credits per semester in most cases. The state would also make exceptions for extreme circumstances, such as caring for a sick husband or serving in the military, officials from the governor’s office said.

“From a ‘stepping out’ provision permitting students to pause their education to allowing students to take variable credits if necessary, the program includes built-in flexibility and any suggestion otherwise is patently false,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Still, an average student would not get more time, officials said. Their scholarship would not extend beyond two or four years, depending on the type of degree, even though the vast majority of students need extra time.

Only 22 percent of first-time, full-time students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at CUNY graduate in four years, but that number jumps to 54 percent after six years. The numbers are even more striking for students in two-year degree programs. Only three percent of students earn an associate’s degree in two years, but by the four-year mark, about 20 percent have.

This could be particularly difficult for students who have to take remedial classes, which do not count toward a student’s degree. Only about 50 percent of New York City high school graduates have met CUNY’s standards for college-readiness in math and English.

If the governor wants to help more students graduate, he should focus on eliminating some of these restrictions, instead of adding more, said Kevin Stump, the Northeast Regional Director for Young Invincibles, a group that encourages young adult activism on a range of issues, including healthcare and higher education.

“If the governor is serious, and if the state is serious — about college affordability and making college free,” Stump said, “it shouldn’t have all these ridiculous rules.”

Trouble with transcripts

Mayor: Detroit high school grads lost jobs because city schools couldn’t produce their transcripts

In his State of the City address, Mayor Mike Duggan said Detroit high school grads lost jobs because school bureaucracy made it hard to get high school transcripts.

By the time students graduate from the Detroit Public Schools, they have likely endured many years of frustrations, indignities and disappointments, but Mayor Mike Duggan revealed in his State of the City address Tuesday night that, for many Detroiters, the challenges didn’t end with graduation.

Until recently, graduates lost job opportunities when they struggled to get copies of their transcripts from the district.

Duggan, during  his roughly hourlong speech, said officials with the city’s Detroit At Work job training program discovered the transcript problem when they were talking with the heads of major hospitals in the city.

The hospital leaders said they were having difficulty filling entry-level positions despite Detroit’s high unemployment rate because Detroiters who applied couldn’t produce their high school transcripts.

City officials were skeptical, Duggan recalled. “So they went over to the Detroit Public Schools and do you know what they found? One million paper transcripts in a warehouse, in a school system run by an emergency manager who was dealing with everything he or she could at the schools.”

It had been taking two to three months for hospitals to get applicants’ transcripts, Duggan said, and “by the time they got the transcript, somebody else had the job.”

The Detroit At Work program contacted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather who “got really mad,” Duggan said, and ordered the district to speed up the process.

Soon, one local business leader donated scanners so transcripts could be digitized and another business leader marshaled his employees to volunteer to physically scan the documents. The issue is being resolved, Duggan said, but he seemed alarmed that the problem existed in the first place.

“How many barriers do we have to erect in front of the folks in this town?” he asked.

The mayor’s speech largely focused on economic and community issues. Since he has very little authority or influence over schools, it’s no surprise that he didn’t spend much time on education.

But he did tout the Detroit Promise scholarship program, which guarantees two years of community college tuition to all Detroit grads as well as four-year tuition to qualifying grads who have good grades and test scores.

“If you apply yourself, college is going to be available to any resident of the city of Detroit who graduates from a Detroit high school,” Duggan said. “It’s one of the privileges of growing up in the city of Detroit.”

He also reiterated his recent vow to fight forced school closings by the state. State officials have threatened to close 25 schools in the city after years of poor test scores but Duggan said closures won’t improve education.

“Here’s what I know for sure,” he said. “We have 110,000 school children in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a single quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place.”

Duggan said he and the newly elected school board “know we need to improve these schools but before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative and I’ve been encouraged by the conversations between the school board leadership and the governor’s office this week. I’m optimistic we’re gonna work things out but I want everybody in this community to know that I will be standing with [School Board] President Iris Taylor and the Detroit school board on this entire school closure issue.”