Friday, February 26, 2016

Guest Column: Is New York City's CUNY a Camel or a Racehorse?

By Professor Andrzej Krakowski, Ph.D.
The City College of New York

As a member of the faculty at the City College of New York, I closely follow the trials and tribulations of the City University of New York (CUNY) with regard to its inextricably intertwined fate and financial future. Funding CUNY has become a political struggle between New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The dispute has, among other things, exposed the total ineffectiveness of a faculty union leadership that has inexplicably—and inexcusably--allowed its rank and file to labor a staggering seven years without a contract.

All that is well known to CUNY stakeholders and seasoned observers and, increasingly, to better informed consumers of New York State and City news. What isn’t well known—in fact, it seems to have been totally overlooked by all interested parties—is the fact that nobody seems to have a clear sense of the purpose or mission of CUNY, or, for that matter, of America’s public colleges and universities as a whole. Absent agreement on this, it will be practically impossible to adequately fund (or finance, as businesspeople prefer to say) CUNY or other taxpayer-supported institutions of higher education; and a steady diet of starvation-sized budgets and savage spending cuts will be permanent features of American educational life. People, put simply, are naturally reluctant to invest in or support funding of projects, programs and organizations led by individuals who can’t seem to express or even agree among themselves on fundamental aims and purposes.

Europe is Different

As someone who was born and educated abroad and frequently travels to other countries in connection with creative and educational endeavors, I’m struck by the differences between our public universities and colleges and their overseas counterparts. In other countries, since they’re not profit oriented, the aim of government-funded universities and colleges is to provide the highest-level education to the most deserving students, while the goal of for-profit schools is to produce as many graduates as possible (oftentimes greatly contributing to the phenomenon of degree inflation). Whether we like it or not, this system is more democratic as it is based purely on merit. In Europe and Asia, if a student studies hard and shows promise (there are entry exams for all candidates to determine this) the state will subsidize the student’s education, regardless of the student’s class origins. A student looking for an easy way forward, academically, can usually secure a spot in a private college—and pay through the nose for the privilege of getting a degree.

Rankings of overseas private and public institutions of higher learning take their respective missions into account. In the United States, however, the same standards of ranking and classification are applied to public and private colleges and universities—the method used in the U.S. News and World Report survey combined with what is known as the Carnegie Classification.

Let’s take a quick look at the criteria considered in the recent U.S. News Ranking of the Best Colleges and their Ranking Model Indicators. These are:

1. Undergraduate Academic Reputation (22.5% of the total score)
2. Retention (22.5%)---this measure is a combination of two ingredients: six-year graduation rate (80% of just the retention or 18% of the total score) and first-year retention rate (20% or 4.5% respectively)
3. Faculty resources (20% of the total score)---which consists of six components: A) class size, with its two elements: a) the proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students (30% of only the faculty resources score) and b) the proportion with 50 or more students (10%), B) faculty salary (35%) adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living, C) the proportion of instructors with the highest degree in their fields (15%), D) the student-faculty ratio (5%) and E) proportion of the full-time to adjunct faculty (5% of the faculty resources score)
4. Student selectivity (12.5% of the total score)--with its three sections:  a) the SAT and the composite ACT score (65% of the Student selectivity score), b) class ranking in their high school classes (25%), and c) ratio of students admitted to applicants (10%)
5. Financial resources (10% of the total score)
6. Graduate rate performance (7.5%)
7. Alumni giving rate (5%).

A closer analysis will show that each of these seven standards puts public colleges at a strong disadvantage.

Let’s start from the first one. Below are the elements the U.S. News uses in ranking Undergraduate Academic Reputation (which account for almost one quarter of the score): “The U.S. News ranking formula gives significant weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school's undergraduate academic excellence. The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – to account for intangibles at peer institutions, such as faculty dedication to teaching.”

The Reputation Concept

First of all, the concept of reputation is based totally on abstract thinking, which is not very conducive to statistical standardization or prioritization. It simply doesn’t withstand the scientific method. Show me a president, provost or a dean of admissions, who wouldn’t be biased while talking about his or her school. It would be counterintuitive and foolish for us to think that there are such people.

 As to the next part of the quote:  “To get another set of important opinions on National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges, we [The U.S. News – AK] also surveyed 2,200 counselors at public high schools, each of which was a gold, silver or bronze medal winner in a recent edition of the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings, as well as 400 college counselors at the largest independent schools.” - opinions of the high school counselors are easily influenced by such factors as marketing and public relations, and those in turn wholly depend on the wealth of the institution. It’s hard not to notice the ads for University of Phoenix on primetime television. With plenty of the advertising dollars and satellite campuses around the country and abroad, private universities will always attract many more foreign and out-of-state students (in the state and city colleges those are the highest profit generators) than the perpetually underfunded public institutions. Clearly, academic reputation is a factor of money poured in--- the more you put in, the more you get out.

Retention, with its two elements, without a doubt favors private institutions, even with the seemingly liberal six-year graduation approach. For those unfamiliar with the term, retention means completing a four-year degree in six. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that a student paying $50,000 or more in tuition has financially more to lose by not completing the coursework on time than a student paying $9,000 per year, no matter how rich his or her parents might be. Many private colleges (even in major cities) require on-campus residency, at least during the freshman year, and provide space in their dormitories---a nice additional income stream, since they’re also the landlords. The city-located, public schools rarely have sufficient available housing and depend mostly on the commuter traffic. The dormitories housed students are by nature more focused on studying---even the ones who must work in order to afford the tuition, as those usually look for employment within a walking distance from the campus, as opposed to the public school students who could be working in one end of town, live in another and take classes in the third. From my own observation, the most absences and lateness for classes are caused by commuting and transportation problems within the city.

Similar factors apply to first-year retention. Ironically, a student from a more affluent family—typically not the first in his or family to attend college—with the financial resources to pay for an Ivy League, or, say, a NYU education, will most likely have fewer problems with financing his or her second year of education than a poorer student—typically the first in his or her family to attend college—who must rely on both student loans and a paycheck to pay the CUNY tuition.

Explaining its ranking of Princeton as the nation’s #1 university, U.S. News & World Report states: “Princeton was the first university to offer a “no loan” policy to financially needy students, giving grants instead of loans to accepted students who need help paying tuition.” Very noble of Princeton to do so, but how many underfunded public universities or colleges can afford giving grants to individual financially strapped students? I also wonder how many grants were actually given by Princeton, compared to the total number of “students in need” flocking to the public institutions. I suspect by comparison probably not that many. On the other hand, I don’t remember ever seeing any comprehensive studies undertaken by CCNY that would try to define, identify and remedy the high rate of the first-year dropouts. The reasons for the low retention could be varied: from the loss or change of employment, the inadequate schedules of classes or decaying infrastructure, through seemingly problematic location of the campus, poor selection of courses, dissatisfaction with the quality of instruction, the price of tuition itself, finally to the poaching of the most talented students frequently practiced by the richer private schools (in this case the college becomes a victim of its own success). Whereas each reason should be separately addressed and dealt with, from the statistical point of view it doesn’t matter--a dropout is a dropout.

The Faculty Resources category, with its six underlined factors, is devastatingly skewed towards for-profit, private institutions of higher learning. Class sizes, faculty remuneration, the ratio of student-faculty and full-time to adjunct instructors, as well as the number of teaching staff with terminal degrees in their respective fields are clearly functions of available resources. As a point of reference, an average professorial salary at CUNY is almost 50% lower than its NYU or Columbia counterparts, not to mention that during a fiscal crisis, the natural tendency at any school would be to cut the number of unprofitable classes and increase size of the profitable ones. Not a good idea from the accreditation standpoint, however.

One may argue that the entire category is responsible for only a fifth of the entire score, so we shouldn’t be overly concerned abut each of its many components, but in the ranking each fraction of a point counts. It’s so evident that the public colleges are at the disadvantage that all we have to do is to check the current placement of the top ranked public university. UC Berkley is ranked #20 in the U.S. and none of the CUNY colleges made the top 200 on the U.S. News survey. Even CCNY--which produced 10 Nobel Prize winners—didn’t make the list.

The Student Selectivity category with its three factors, which account for an eighth of the total score, takes under consideration such elements as: SAT and the composite ACT scores, class ranking in high school classes, and ratio of students admitted to number of applicants. The SAT score, which is the only standardized test available, works better as a filter to sift away the less desirable candidates in a stand-alone private university than in a city-run system, such as CUNY. With the recently introduced Pathways, the graduates from local community colleges are guaranteed smooth transfer to one of the senior colleges. Whereby the senior colleges are considered a research level, the two-year community schools are more trade and craft oriented.

Distinctly Different Missions

Again, unless we consider the distinctively different missions of those schools, we will be comparing apples and oranges, doing disservice to both. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the disproportionally large number of the third-year dropouts in CUNY is made of young peoples who after graduating, transferred from community colleges and quickly found out that they are not cut out to be full time senior level students. The class ranking in a high school means nothing, unless ones assumes that all schools are level-wise equal and have the same number of students, but we all know that that’s not the case.

As to the points given for a high ratio of students admitted in relation the number of applicants--- how can a public college system, which is obliged to take any student graduating from the city’s high school, compete with a top-tier private institution?

If all this is confusing, the category called Financial Resources is even more confusing. What financial resources? Those derived from tuitions, generous philanthropy, government research grants and smart capital investments or the skimpy allocations in the state and city budgets during occasional ceasefires in political wars--even when the state and the city enjoy budgetary surpluses, as is the case right now?

Is the situation so hopeless? Unless we reconsider our priorities, I’m afraid that if it’s not now hopeless, it will be soon.

American public universities and colleges in their structure remind me that old definition of a camel: a horse designed by a committee. Camels are amazing animals; but a camel will never outrun a race horse. Nor should it be expected to—nature didn’t design the camel for this purpose. Similarly, even the finest, best engineered luxury sports car will never, all things being equal, win a Formula One race. Still, the racehorse can’t do what the camel can do; and the Formula One racecar can’t compete against, say, a Jeep or Land Rover when it comes to traversing rough terrain—or, simply, driving in snow.

In other words, we have to refocus our thinking regarding the entire system of higher education, and make sure that the missions of public colleges and private universities are both clearly defined and adhered to before we start fixing our immediate problems.