2019 Year in Review

How can we help public college students keep their credits when they transfer schools?

Over a third of college students transfer at least once yet, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report, approximately 43% of credits earned at a previously attended institution are lost when students transfer. Economically disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately; lost credits often result in students running out of financial aid before they have enough credits in a major area of study to graduate.

We have addressed barriers to credit transfer by focusing on the CUNY system, since well over half of New York City public school students attend one of its schools. What we found was deeply disturbing. CUNY does not currently have systems or records to determine the number of credits earned at one of its institutions which are then lost when students transfer to another of its institutions. What we know, however, is that enormous numbers of poor students are suffering credit transfer loss even when they transfer within the system. This has a direct impact on college graduation rates because federal (PELL) and New York State (TAP) grants stop after a certain number of years and require that a student make a certain amount of progress towards a degree each year. If a student does not receive full credit for two years of college upon transfer, he/she has, in effect, “wasted” essential federal and state financial aid and is likely to run out of aid before reaching graduation.

In 2019, we supported an innovative project in collaboration with Hostos Community College, Lehman College, and the CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, supervised by Ithaka S+R. The project team is working to improve credit evaluation and student advising processes and to get better information on course equivalencies into the hands of students and administrators sooner. The goals are to dramatically cut the time it takes to evaluate transfer credits, significantly reduce the percentage of transfer credits that do not count toward a degree, and virtually eliminate credit evaluation decisions that go against policy, all of which will lead to a higher degree completion rate for transfer students between these two colleges. If the project is successful, it will provide a road map to expand it to other campuses.

Could an emergency grant be the thing that keeps a college student on track to graduate?

The financial aid system often falls short when it comes to supporting students who are at risk of dropping out of school because of financial crises caused by, or that result in, unexpected one-time expenses. These include rent arrears, medical expenses, homelessness or threat of eviction, and back-up transportation or car repairs. One-time costs associated with these sudden events are often less than $1,500.

To help students facing a financial emergency get assistance in the short term so they can graduate in the long term, we created an emergency grants program in partnership with the Gerstner Family Foundation—the SUNY Student Emergency Fund—at six SUNY campuses. (For most New York City underserved students who wish to attend college away from home, SUNY is the most accessible and cost-effective option.) The Fund has already shown dramatic impact. Of the 120 students in the first cohort receiving aid in spring 2018, 87.5% persisted or graduated from a two- or four-year college by spring 2019. In the second cohort, of the 170 fall 2018 recipients, 90.6% persisted or graduated by spring 2019.

Campuses are also seeing a catalytic impact of this grant, including an increase in fundraising from other sources (with one senior class donating its senior gift to the program) and increases in the number of students in need coming forward for help and obtaining other forms of campus assistance. 

The SUNY Impact Foundation administers the program, collects data, and studies the effects of the funding. Grants were awarded to University at Albany, University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State, Dutchess Community College, SUNY Oneonta, and SUNY Orange. Grant awards, dependent upon undergraduate enrollment, permit each campus to award up to $2,000 per student.

We also funded a program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) to increase college graduation rates for its students with outstanding tuition balances of between $100 and $2,000. Building on the work of a small pilot that had shown promise in reducing the dropout rate for low-income college students, we underwrote a wider effort. CUNY SPS developed a multi-faceted communications plan to advertise the opportunity, called “Finish Line,” to students and to award the grants. Students must complete multiple steps before CUNY will forgive the debt. The Office of the Bursar monitors students who receive a Finish Line award and reaches out to those who appear to be in danger of falling behind on payments. Academic advisors ensure that students register only for courses that fulfill their degree requirements and they support students to ensure that they achieve satisfactory academic progress. Students in need of academic support are referred to a 24/7 online tutoring service.

Are public dollars accessible for pay-for-success programs that promote college persistence?

We initiated and funded the first “pay for success” college persistence program in New York which involves Bottom Line and Lehman College. Bottom Line is providing college persistence services at Lehman College and, if certain benchmarks are reached, Lehman and the Office of the Mayor of New York City have agreed to pay part of the costs of the services. The goal is to replicate this cost-sharing model with other college partners to ensure sustainability, and to increase student reach while maintaining high-quality services. Bottom Line fills a gaping hole in the suite of college-focused programs in New York City by focusing on successful college completion in addition to college access support for mid-achieving students who are not necessarily accessing top-tier institutions. These students are realizing exceptional college persistence rates thanks to Bottom Line’s hands-on guidance at its 21 partner colleges in or near New York City. Nationally, Bottom Line has achieved a historic college graduation rate of 79% and the program is on track to replicate that success in New York.

Which programs effectively increase graduation rates for CUNY students?

In 2019, we provided major support to fund strategic partnerships fueling the growth of America Needs You (ANY), which offers intensive career development and leadership training that enables high-potential, low-income, first-generation college students to persist in college, earn a degree, and secure a meaningful job. In New York, ANY serves CUNY students, one-third of whom start out at a two-year college, because they have been identified as having the highest need for intervention. We funded strategic partnerships between ANY and two CUNY campuses: LaGuardia Community College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. This partnership enables ANY to operate under a cost-sharing model where it pays 80% of expenses while the campuses pay 20% plus provide resources that include workshop spaces and on-campus desks where ANY staff can provide convenient support to fellows. To ensure year-over-year persistence and bachelor’s degree completion, ANY supports students as they transition from two- to four-year colleges and throughout their college career—and it has achieved results that position it as the most effective model for college-completion programs for CUNY students. Of the ANY fellows enrolled in community colleges, 87% transferred to four-year universities; 94% of alumni have graduated within six years; and 92% have secured jobs or have enrolled full-time in graduate school. In comparison, CUNY’s three-year graduation rate for community colleges is 22% and its six-year graduation rate for senior colleges is 55%.

Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) is the largest community college in the CUNY system with 27,000 degree-seeking students but with a three-year graduation rate of only 22%. In 2019, we committed to doubling the size of BMCC’s IMPACT Peer Mentoring program because assessments conducted by BMCC’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analytics show that it produces consistently higher retention and graduation rates for both mentors and mentees as compared with similarly-situated students not affiliated with the program. IMPACT pairs upperclassmen peer mentors with first-semester students. They meet in person once a week and maintain regular contact several times a week, focusing on role modeling, community building, success coaching, campus resources, and advocacy. For the most recent cohort, IMPACT mentees had a three-year graduation rate of 30% compared with 19% for similar students not in the program as well as higher credit accumulation numbers in each semester tracked before graduation (e.g. 11.9 credits in the second-year spring term, compared with 6.9 credits for similar students).

In 2019, we also continued to fund The College Completion Innovation Fund through Graduate NYC with the goal of fostering collaboration among foundations in the college access and persistence space. The Fund aims to significantly increase college graduation rates throughout the five boroughs by harnessing the collective expertise and impact of a wide range of philanthropic and educational organizations. The Fund makes grants to support undergraduate colleges and nonprofit community-based organizations in implementing innovative programs that address the graduation challenges faced by underrepresented student populations. In addition to its role in catalyzing innovation and expanding successful practices, the Fund also provides professional development and technical assistance to its grantees and facilitates ongoing dialogue related to increasing degree attainment in New York City. The Fund seeks to promote effective practices that have proven successful in local contexts—ones that may be scaled in other locations across the city—via its partnership with the NYC Department of Education and CUNY. Through four award cycles (we participated in two), the Fund has invested $3M to support 16 pilot initiatives and provide the organizations implementing them with ongoing professional development. Projects have included improving the transfer pipeline from two-year to four-year colleges (both Bottom Line and Cypress Hills increased successful transfers through respective projects), developing a mobile application to make advising resources and information more accessible to students (LaGuardia Community College), and supporting a program to acclimate transfer and underrepresented minority students in the school’s elementary education program to increase chances of on-time degree completion (Queens College).

2019 Year in Review — Contents