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Cass Conrad: Recognizing High School and College Connections

Recent research demonstrates that college graduates have far better financial, health and civic outcomes than their uncredentialed peers. Yet, far too few young New Yorkers achieve this increasingly important milestone. Although student outcomes have improved in the last decade in New York City, only about two out of every three students graduate from high school in four years. Of those who graduate, approximately 44 percent are prepared to succeed in college. Relatively low graduation rates at CUNY and other local colleges reflect the challenges facing young people including a significant lack of preparation.

New York City now ranks sixth among the 15 largest U.S. metropolitan areas in percentage of the working‐age population that has a college degree. Only 39 percent of all New Yorkers age 25 to 64 hold a Bachelor’s degree. Additionally, there is growing evidence of a “skills gap” in which many young adults lack the skills and work ethic needed for many jobs that pay a middle-class wage. Together, these trends have significant economic and social implications for our city. 

There are many complex and inter-related factors that contribute to these outcomes, but New York City must be resolute in its efforts to improve the college attainment rate for its young adults. Measuring progress that high schools and colleges make toward college readiness and college graduation rates must be a significant part of those efforts. 

Fortunately, the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York have been working together for many years to help identify the factors that influence student success.  A data-sharing agreement between the two systems that began in 2008 has enabled CUNY and NYC DOE to identify many issues that are related to college readiness and college completion. The partnership has sparked an enormous amount of research to understand the drivers of college success, which in turn has led to practical policy applications for reporting and accountability.

For example, the NYC DOE has created new post-secondary outcomes reports for high schools using CUNY enrollment data called “Where Are They Now?” reports.  High school principals and staff can use these dynamic reports to understand how well their students perform in college.  The DOE has also added sophisticated college-readiness measurements to its high school Progress Reports.  These metrics highlight the number of graduates who reach college proficiency standards on Regents exams and other standardized tests, as well as the number of grads who take and pass college credit or AP classes.  These metrics are important because they focus on areas where school leaders can influence outcomes by shifting priorities and resources within the school.  For example, although high school students can graduate with a score of 65 on the English Regents exams, school leaders and teachers should know that students who score a 75 on that exam will be exempt from remediation at CUNY.  Because the new data reports now focus on the percentage of students achieving this higher benchmark, we anticipate that more schools will communicate the importance of the higher score to students, and support their efforts to achieve it.

The shared data has also enabled CUNY to add new measurements to its accountability system.  It has begun measuring the percentage of freshmen at each college who successfully complete 80% of the credits they attempt in their first year, which is a key indicator of early academic momentum and likely college completion.  More recently, CUNY developed a new “value-added measure” of each college’s contribution to its students’ graduation rate. In previous years, unadjusted graduation rates were used to assess performance. The new measures account for differences in the high school performance, economic need, and demographic characteristics of the students the colleges serve, creating a better understanding of each college’s contribution to student success.  These new performance measures provide an incentive for colleges to consider what they can do to better support students in earning degrees, other than increasing admissions standards.

Further improving our public schools and universities is imperative for New York City.  Families need to know that they and their children can get an excellent education, one that prepares them well for the future.  Employers need to know that they can draw from a well-prepared workforce pool, with a wide range of skills and credentials.  To achieve these important goals, the city’s major public education systems (the City University of New York and the New York City Department of Education) must continue working together and must continue to challenge one another to improve student outcomes. Sharing data and measuring progress toward greater college completion rates is an essential element of that continued collaboration.

Cass Conrad currently serves as the Executive Director for School Support and Development at CUNY.