Building College Readiness For Incoming Students

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CUNY is the largest urban university in the U.S., with 272,000 degree students, of whom about 90,000 attend our six community colleges. CUNY has a very diverse student body, and the majority of our incoming students each year are graduates of New York City public high schools.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen increasing numbers of high school graduates in New York City, and with that, increasing numbers of students with weaker academic skills, whose knowledge and understanding of college is pretty limited.

CUNY is consistent with the U.S. urban community college graduation rate of 16 percent, but we are committed to doubling our community college graduation rate by 2020. As a result, addressing our students’ remedial needs is very important, and so we designed the CUNY Start program.

This year, 80 percent of incoming community college students, or about 33,000 students, tested as needing remediation in at least one of the areas of reading, writing or math, and 10 percent needed it in all three. When those academic issues are combined with personal and family issues, financial challenges, the difficulty of learning about college life, a lack of guidance and support and a lack of good study habits, all of these issues contributed to so many students failing to graduate. And all of those factors influenced the design of CUNY Start.

The program includes intensive instruction in reading, writing and math, with the goals of minimizing required remedial coursework, fostering student persistence in college and increasing their chances of graduating. It’s more than test prep; we want to equip students to be successful in college.

Students who have been admitted to the university and have failed at least two sections of the CUNY Assessment Test can defer admission for a semester and study for 15-18 weeks. They do not need to use financial aid; there is only a $75 student fee for the semester. The day program is 25 hours a week for reading, writing and math. Students also learn about developing good college habits and take a weekly seminar in time management skills. We also have a 12 hour per week class in the evenings for students who only failed one section of the test or are unable to take the full class.

We developed a single set of curricula with a strong constructivist approach for the CUNY Start program across all our community colleges. The instructors are not regular college faculty; they are hired just to teach in this program. They come from different backgrounds; many have experience in adult education and teaching English as a second language, and all spend one semester in training with another teacher before they begin.

The results have been very encouraging. In the fall of 2011, 67 percent of the incoming Start students had entered having failed all three parts of the exam, and 33 percent had failed two parts. At the end of the semester, some 37 percent had become fully exempt from all remediation, another 37 percent were exempt from two areas of the test, and just 10 percent were unable to pass all three sections. Even those students who did not pass still made significant progress.

When put into the context of the overall remediation picture in community colleges, these results are even more striking; having over a third of students test out of all remediation after one semester is unheard of.

There are a number of additional benefits that go beyond passing these exams. For students, minimizing remedial coursework increases their chances of success. Financial aid is focused on credit courses, and students develop a greater ability to navigate through college successfully. For our colleges, the Start program improves retention and graduation rates, and faculty are able to spend less time teaching at the pre-college level and more time teaching at the college level.

Traditional remediation techniques used over the last 40 years have not worked very well. This is a different approach. We plan on continuing to research the long term effectiveness of the Start program, and we are planning significant expansion in the next couple of years. Ultimately, it may become the primary path into college for all of the most underprepared students in our system.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, go to:

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