NYC needs to embrace community-based organizations to boost college success

Illustration by Zach Williams/ NYN Media
Matt Chaban, left, and Tom Hilliard, right

NYC needs to embrace community-based organizations to boost college success

December 19, 2017

When it comes to supporting students on the path to a college degree, New York City needs all the help it can get. But the city’s education system is not leveraging the full potential of its community-based organizations to help boost college completion.

Now is the time. New York is struggling with a major college success problem, as a recent report by the Center for an Urban Future reveals. Only 22 percent of students at City University of New York community colleges earn a diploma in three years. At CUNY’s senior colleges, the outcomes are better, but still troubling; just 55 percent of their students graduate in six years.

At a time when a college credential has become the floor to economic opportunity, the city needs to take decisive action to boost college success. Major progress will require leadership from the mayor and governor and bold new investments in student success from the city, state and private philanthropy.

There is another vital ally in the campaign to help more New Yorkers reach graduation day: the city’s constellation of community-based organizations. These organizations need to be better integrated into the city’s school systems, so that their powerful programs can reach the thousands of students who need them.

For students who may not have grown up in a college-going environment, nonprofit providers play a critical role, ensuring students have the resources and confidence they need to graduate. After all, many organizations are based in the communities of the students they serve. They not only understand and receive the trust of students, but of their parents as well. That helps when it’s time plan a course load, add sensitive tax data to a financial application, and choose a college major.

New York City boasts more than a hundred such organizations tackling an array of needs. As part of a broader agenda to combat poverty, many larger community-based organizations, such as Good Shepherd Services and CAMBA, are investing in college success programs as a key to expanding opportunity. Groups including CollegeBound Initiative and Goddard Riverside’s Options Institute provide funding and training for school guidance counselors focused on college access. Bottom Line NYC and Henry Street Settlement operate centers that counsel students on getting to college, then provide guidance once there. College Access: Research and Action trains students to act as mentors to their peers in both high school and college. Still other organizations focus on the perilous summer after high school graduation, when the obstacles of registration and preparation can cause some college-bound New Yorkers to give up.

Just as hundreds of community-based organizations ease the path for thousands of students, it now falls to college administrators and policymakers to streamline the connections between organizations and schools, ensuring more students can access these essential services. At the same time, opportunities abound for CBOs to find and fill crucial gaps in student services, ensuring that their efforts are complementing existing programs and meeting the most pressing needs.

Community-based organizations are uniquely suited to the task. In a city where 45 percent of all CUNY students are the first in their families to attend college, these organizations can provide compassionate social and academic support. But at both the high school and college level, CBOs are not systematically integrated into schools, posing a missed opportunity for the system.

Nonprofit leaders say that the Department of Education and CUNY lack a cohesive vision for how to integrate community-based organizations into their educational missions. As a result, many such groups serve students directly in their communities instead of coordinating with local educational institutions, resulting in redundant services and, in some cases, mutual distrust.

The disconnect is sometimes understandable – school staff often believe CBOs lack the necessary training or expertise to do the job, and data is still limited on which programs are effective – but this division can be overcome. Better coordination can ensure that best practices are applied and programs are complementary, not redundant.

City Hall should make a serious and concerted effort to foster this collaboration. The de Blasio administration has already achieved progress from universal prekindergarten to high school graduation rates, and now it must seek the same outcomes in college.

To begin, the mayor should bring together the Department of Education, CUNY and the nonprofit community to work on improving and expanding existing partnerships, and creating new ones where services are lacking. Officials should also reach out beyond these groups to other community cornerstones – such as libraries, employers and places of worship – as part of a collaborative local effort to sustain student progress.

This is not only a matter of throwing open the doors. Although many high schools have community relations staff who work with nonprofit organizations, there is no corresponding role at most colleges and universities. As a result, partnerships are often the product of personal relationships and historical accidents.

To fix this problem, each of CUNY’s 24 colleges should designate a liaison responsible for recruiting CBO partners and ensuring more students are covered without duplicating efforts. Likewise, the Department of Education should create a framework to facilitate CBO relationships in every school, and support them with more training and outreach.

When it comes to CBOs themselves, there are opportunities to better align their programs, given significant disparities and gaps in terms of the services provided. According to data from Graduate NYC, a research and service organization co-sponsored by CUNY and the Department of Education, a whopping 58 percent of programs provide support for college exploration, and almost as many assist with college campus visits. But fewer than one-third of programs tutor college students or coach them in dealing with complex systems, such as degree planning, major selection, and financial aid reapplication. Nonprofits focused on college access and success should prioritize the development of programs that fill in these blanks.

Another obstacle to integration is a lack of data. Administrators want accountability from their partners without taxing their resources. Community groups, and their funders, should prioritize data collection to help validate their approaches. Where outcomes data exists, it is promising: Students in Bottom Line’s program were 14 percent more likely to attend college, and students at CollegeBound schools were nearly twice as likely to attend a four-year college as their peers.

If New York is serious about boosting college success, it will need to work closely with the groups that share this goal. Community-based organizations already play an essential role helping students earn a college credentials and a shot at a better life. Like these striving students, New York City’s education system should seek out community-based organizations and embrace them.

Matt Chaban is policy director at the Center for an Urban Future and Fisher Fellow for the Middle Class Jobs Project. Tom Hilliard is CUF’s senior fellow for economic opportunity and author of Degrees of Difficulty: Boosting College Success in New York City.


Matt Chaban & Tom Hilliard