There are too many worms. In a mid-Manhattan classroom, 20 applicants write their thoughts about going to community college on paper cutouts and stick them to a poster of a tree — multicoloured, tapered leaves for hopes, square bits of trunk for strengths, squiggly worms for fears. The worms dominate.
For these students, college is not an assumption but an aspiration, a potential salvation from the poverty most grew up in. Several would be the first in their families to attend college — so they get no guidance from home about the leap to that alien plane. Most of them are applying to community college because they know, or suspect, that their high school grades and test scores are not good enough to get them into four-year colleges.
They learn that the New Community College (officials want to give it a catchier name someday, ideally that of a generous benefactor) would be unlike any they have heard of.
What they do not learn is how much will be riding on it. Unknown to them, these students have applied to be test subjects in a multimillion-dollar experiment in how to fix what ails community colleges. City University of New York (Cuny) has designed from scratch a new structure and new curriculum that it hopes will greatly improve students’ chances of earning an associate degree and transferring to a four-year college.
The experiment raises many questions, of course. The most pressing may be whether its resource-intensive approach can be carried out on a large scale at a reasonable cost. And long before a single class was to be held, faculty members and administrators battled over what was best for students.
These students do not display the habits or confidence that would have been instilled in a more privileged group. Just one of the 20 scribbles notes during the presentation, and when the floor is opened for questions, there are none. The professors, Nicola Blake and Tracy Daraviras, try hard to be open and engaging, stressing their own modest backgrounds; when they prod the students for reactions, though, they get little in return.
Giselle Diaz, a soft-spoken high school senior from Brooklyn, read a brief description of the college and was intrigued enough to apply, but the details are all news to her. Destiny Jackson, a senior from the Bronx, liked the idea of going to school in midtown — she used to work at the nearby Lord & Taylor — and of not seeing the same faces she saw throughout high school. Others in the room concede that they marked the New Community College on their applications just to round out the list of six schools they are allowed to name, in order of preference.
For too many students, community college does not work. Only about 1 in 5 students graduates within three years. Most never do and never transfer to a four-year college. Full-time students, who account for 44 percent of all community college enrollment, fare better: Less than one in three finish in three years, according to the federal Department of Education.
Even as community college plays an ever-bigger part in improving the job skills of mature workers, its role for young students has also changed.
The surging enrollment revealed in federal surveys - a 47 percent increase from 1990 to 2010 — means vastly more students arriving with weak academic records and poor study habits, unprepared for college-level work. About 40 percent of community college students take remedial courses, for which they do not earn any credit toward a degree, and studies show that many others need but do not take them.“These are folks who’ve been told, ‘You’re inadequate, you can’t make it,”’ said Scott E. Evenbeck, president of the New Community College.
The New Community College has open admissions, but it is not for everyone. Of 4,000 applicants, 504 went through the information session and interview, and 339 decided to go.
Destiny, Carlina and Giselle were all accepted, but Carlina decided to go to Suny Cobleskill, a senior college. Only Destiny, attracted in part by the unconventional features that she hopes will help her finish in two years, is confident in her decision to attend. “Some of my friends are going to Lehman, some City Tech,” she says. Moving away was also not an option, financially, for Giselle. She will go to the New Community College but not by choice.
She tries to see the bright side: The structure and discipline will benefit her, but she admits to a lingering disappointment about not studying film. “It still is an issue for me,” she says. “Maybe I'll go two years there, but I could try to transfer after one year. This is just the place to start.”
TOP COMMUNITY COLLEGES
1. Saint Paul College(www.saintpaul.edu)
2. Hesston College(www.hesston.edu)
3. Carolinas College of Health Sciences (www.carolinascollege.edu)
4. Mayland Community College (www.mayland.edu)
5. Itasca Community College(www.itascacc.edu)