In his first term, Mayor Bill de Blasio took important steps to reduce inequality with bold policies such as universal pre-K and computer science for all. But if the mayor is serious about making headway on his signature issue, his administration should now turn its attention to another important educational reform: boosting the rate at which New Yorkers earn a college credential.
While a college credential has become the single most important ticket to the middle class, far too few New Yorkers have one. This includes thousands of young people who enroll in the city’s public colleges and community colleges with the express purpose of getting a degree.
All told, about 3.3 million city residents over age 25 lack an associate’s degree or higher level of college attainment. Whereas 60 percent of adults in Manhattan have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, the same is true for fewer than a third of adults in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — and just 19 percent in the Bronx, the second-lowest rate among the nation’s 100 largest counties.
It’s no coincidence that the parts of the city with the fewest degree-holders are also those with the largest and most stubborn pockets of poverty.
To the mayor’s credit, New York City’s high school graduation rate hit an all-time high of 76 percent in 2016, up from 50 percent in 2000. But alarmingly few of these high school graduates are succeeding in college.
Only 22 percent of students who enter CUNY’s community colleges earn a diploma in three years. In some communities, the completion rate is even lower: 16 percent at Bronx Community College and 19 percent at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
To be sure, graduation rates at CUNY’s community colleges have steadily improved over the past eight years — from 14 percent to 22 percent. That’s a big jump from a low base, thanks in large part to CUNY’s pioneering Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative, which provides a range of supports, from counseling to financial help, that help keep students on track.
But for a combination of reasons — because many young people aren’t ready for college-level work, and because college costs, even when they seem low, are a burden — it remains abysmally low.
New York needs to make a lot more progress in tackling its college success problem if it has any hopes whatsover of wrestling with its inequality problem. And although leaders at CUNY and the Department of Education have major roles to play, serious progress requires leadership from de Blasio himself.
First, the mayor can help ensure more of the city’s low-income students overcome the financial burdens that derail so many on their paths to a degree.
As a new report by the Center for an Urban Future details, affordability isn’t just about tuition — roughly 57 percent of CUNY students attend college tuition-free — but the burden of daily expenses such as housing, food, transit, books and childcare, often while foregoing full-time jobs.
CUNY estimates indirect costs of $10,000 a year for students living at home. This matters in a city where 71 percent of CUNY community college students come from households with incomes of less than $30,000 per year.
To address a key non-tuition cost contributing to the high dropout rate, the mayor should provide MetroCards for all community college students. Free monthly MetroCards have helped the ASAP initiative more than double graduation rates among participating students.
This major incentive should be expanded to all CUNY community college students.
At the same time, de Blasio should demand ASAP expand further. In his first term, the mayor admirably invested $77 million in the innovative program, enabling it to scale up to 25,000 students per year. But that’s still only half of all full-time community college students.
Meanwhile, to prepare more high school students to succeed in college, the mayor should push the city’s public schools to put a full-time college access counselor in every high school and overhaul the math curriculum, which currently fails far too many students. Beyond the promising Algebra for All initiative, the city should expand math instruction in all four high school years.
New York City’s college success problem worsens inequality and holds back economic mobility. As he embarks on his second term, Mayor de Blasio has a vital opportunity to change that.
Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. Tom Hilliard is the center’s senior fellow for economic opportunity.