Ready for College

How many students are college-ready? Depends on whom you ask

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Thousands of New York City high school seniors graduated last month, but only time will tell how many of them are truly ready for college.

If last year is any indication, about half of the graduates are “college ready,” according to the city’s definition. But StudentsFirstNY, in a report released last week, argues the city should focus on a metric that includes students who don’t make it to graduation, which would knock the citywide rate down to just over one third.

Neither measure is wrong. But the gap underscores an important point: It is extremely difficult to nail down how many students are ready for college — and increasingly important for the city to do so.

“[College-readiness] becomes really the standard by which high schools are being measured, so I think it’s going to become a much bigger part of the conversation,” said James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a nonpartisan center based at New York University. “A high school diploma as a terminal degree is a thing of the past.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has staked out a goal of having two-thirds of graduates be “college ready,” and laid out an education agenda that includes a focus on algebra, college visits, and individual student counseling in order to accomplish that goal.

It makes sense that the city would focus on college-readiness right now. The city is graduating more students than ever — the graduation rate reached 70 percent this year, up 24 points since 2005. But that only invites the question: What are those students prepared to do?

The city uses a metric meant to judge whether students could avoid taking remedial classes at CUNY. It’s based on Regents exam scores, SAT or ACT scores, and CUNY placement exams and was created in collaboration with CUNY.

The metric doesn’t capture all the factors that determine whether a student will succeed in college, but it represents something high schools can measure and influence, so it’s logical for the education department to track it, CUNY officials said. Also, students in remedial classes complete degrees at less than half the rate of those not in remedial classes.

Yet some critics argue that test scores are not the best way to judge whether students are ready for college. Studies show that a student’s GPA is often a better predictor of success in college than his or her SAT scores, for example, though GPA isn’t standardized across schools.

Meanwhile, groups like StudentsFirstNY believe a metric that counts only graduates, rather than all students who start in ninth grade, artificially inflates the numbers. (The city computes both metrics, but the mayor’s goals are based on graduates.)

If the city wants to examine how well the system is preparing all students for college, it should start with ninth-graders, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards and tests.

“If you just look at the graduates, it’s an inaccurate picture of the system’s performance,” Cohen said.

The most significant critique may be that the metric only sets a minimal bar for academic readiness, and can’t fully predict whether students will actually finish college. Only 22 percent of students graduate with an associate’s degree from CUNY in four years.

Experts say there are a host of social, emotional and financial reasons students sink or swim in college.

“When you talk about the city’s college-readiness index, it would be a mistake for people to think that that is the only measure of college-readiness,” said Gregg Betheil, the president of PENCIL, an organization that helps to connect the business community and public schools. “It’s important for everybody to keep in mind that transitioning takes more than the academic bar.”

In the end, the city must have some way to determine whether enough students are leaving high school prepared for college, said Laura Zingmond, a senior editor at the school-review website Insideschools, who is skeptical that Regents exams are the most reliable tool.

“The practical matter is you have to set a metric,” Zingmond said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify earlier that the city computes a college-readiness metric that includes high school dropouts, but the mayor’s goals are based on graduates. 

new chapter

Kristina Johnson appointed chancellor of SUNY as state’s controversial free tuition plan kicks in

Kristina Johnson, the newly appointed chancellor of SUNY.

Kristina Johnson was named chancellor of the state’s public college system, SUNY announced Monday, a job that will include shepherding New York’s brand new college affordability plan.

“I’m very excited and grateful to be here and [have] the opportunity to serve a system and a state whose governor has put higher education front and center in his agenda,” Johnson said.

An engineer by training, Johnson is currently CEO of a company that focuses on providing clean energy to communities and businesses and served as under-secretary of energy for President Barack Obama. Previously, she was the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University.

Johnson, who starts in September, will replace Nancy Zimpher, who will step down in June after an eight-year stint at the top of the state university system. Zimpher was known for casting SUNY as an institution driving economic growth, and for trying to elevate the teaching profession through a program called TeachNY.

As chancellor, Johnson will oversee a system that served 1.3 million students in 2015-16. And as colleges across the country grapple with issues raised by student debt, Johnson takes the helm at a significant moment.

The state’s new Excelsior Scholarship will provide free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for families earning less than $125,000 per year. Governor Andrew Cuomo has hailed the scholarship as a national milestone in the free college movement. But experts have raised questions about whether the plan’s rules, including strict credit requirements and a requirement to stay in-state after graduation, will limit the number of students who can take advantage of it.

Johnson did not share any of those criticisms when interviewed by the New York Times in an article Monday, calling the scholarship “outrageously ambitious.”

In a statement, Zimpher praised her soon-to-be replacement. “The future of SUNY is indeed bright under the leadership of Dr. Johnson.”

critics of cuomo

CUNY students join chorus of protests against Cuomo’s ‘hypocritical’ college tuition plan

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

Representatives from the University Student Senate of CUNY — the very demographic who should benefit from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tuition plan — are joining protests against the “hypocritical” plan Tuesday afternoon, according to a press release from the Alliance for Quality Education.

The protest by AQE, an organization that has long criticized the governor, is the latest in a round of backlash against Cuomo’s free college tuition plan. The New York Times has been highly critical of the plan on its opinion pages. Experts have questioned whether the plan will leave students with surprise loans instead of reducing student debt. One lawmaker has already promised to introduce legislation that would rid the law of one of its most controversial requirements.

Cuomo unveiled the proposal to provide free college tuition in January while standing next to Senator Bernie Sanders, who championed the idea of free college during his run for president. When the dust settled on the budget process earlier this month, the state created the Excelsior Scholarship, which is supposed to provide free college tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for students from families making less than $125,000 per year.

But it wasn’t long before the details of the plan led to questions — and criticism. As Chalkbeat has reported, the plan will do little to help the lowest-income students, who already receive enough state and federal financial aid to cover the cost of tuition, but often need help paying for things like rent and books.

The plan requires students to take 30 credits per year and graduate on time, even though the majority of SUNY and CUNY students don’t graduate on time. It does not cover part-time students, which make up about a third of the SUNY and CUNY population.

The final straw for many was a requirement that students live and work in-state after graduation for the same number of years as they received the “Excelsior” scholarship. If they do not, the scholarship will turn into student loans, as Chalkbeat pointed out last Monday.

Cuomo has defended himself against these arguments.

“My point is very simple: These are public colleges and they should be open to the public,” Cuomo said. “Ideally they should be free. We can’t get there, but this is a first step.”