Creating College Ready Communities

Preparing NYC's Precarious New Generation of College Students 


More students than ever before are graduating high school in New York City. More high school students have access to college-level and college-preparatory classes. And many more are applying to—and attending—college. These are trends New York City can be proud of.

Unfortunately, college completion rates for the city's public high school graduates remain low. Many of those who enroll in higher education do not complete a college degree. At the City University of New York (CUNY) senior colleges, about half of incoming freshmen in fall 2006 got a bachelor's degree within six years. At its community colleges, just 16 percent of students entering in 2009 earned a two-year associate's degree within three years. These numbers are in line with national trends, which show little change in the college diploma rate over the last decade. (CUNY is by far the most popular college choice for the city's students.) Increasing the numbers of New York City high school graduates going to college and earning a college degree has proven to be an elusive goal for local policymakers.

This report seeks to illuminate the latest college access efforts, and to shed new light on the complicated circumstances that allow some students to go to college and succeed—and so many others to fail. It is the culmination of four years of front-line research inside 12 New York City high schools and two middle schools located in four low-income communities, all with different types of students and academic needs. Center for New York City Affairs researchers also interviewed more than 250 educators, guidance counselors, college experts and policymakers and surveyed more than 300 students and teachers.

The research sheds new light on the complicated circumstances that allow some students to go to college and succeed—and so many others to fail. We found that academic preparation is vitally important, but there are other factors, such as how the schools relate to students and support them, that are equally important. Key findings in the report include:

  • New York City faces a tremendous challenge in its efforts to get all students academically ready for college or work. Just 29 percent of graduates in the Class of 2012 had test scores high enough to avoid remedial courses at the City University of New York.
  • Many schools offer access to one or two college-level courses—and passing even one course improves outcomes: An internal Department of Education analysis found that taking even one CUNY College Now or AP course, for example, reduces the likelihood that students will need remedial classes in college.
  • New York City's nonprofit sector plays a crucial role filling college guidance gaps: We found that high school counselors are typically able to offer only basic application and financial aid help. The nonprofit sector provides a crucial assist with the many additional supports students need.
  • Most high schools in New York City do not offer a full college preparatory curriculum. Students should have access to advanced math and science courses to prepare for college. Our analysis of citywide Regents exams for Algebra 2, Chemistry and Physics revealed that only 28 of 342 schools reviewed had all three of these courses—and 46 schools had none.
  • This academic challenge begins long before high school: Only 25 percent of New York City eighth graders met state standards for reading in 2013 when students took new tests aligned to college expectations. College preparation is daunting when reading skills lag so far behind.
  • Guidance counselor caseloads are too high to give students the help they need preparing for college: In 61 percent of schools, counselors have caseloads of 100 to 300 students—and in most of the remaining schools the caseloads are even higher.
  • Early attention to college academics and career dreams are needed to inspire tougher work: The Department of Education is counting on the new Common Core state standards to help achieve this goal. Students will need to be prepared for these more rigorous demands. An obvious step is to have honest conversations about careers and college much earlier, ideally beginning in sixth grade, so students establish personal goals and work toward them.
  • Guidance counselors and students both report that most young people don't become serious about college until 11th grade—and by then, it is too late to do genuine college preparation: A majority of students we surveyed didn't know that colleges see their 9th and 10th grade transcripts. Educators suggest that schools provide a formal, grades 6 to 12 curriculum on career and college planning and guidance, so students aren't blindsided in their junior year and take ownership of their academics beginning in middle school.
  • First-generation college students require high-quality professional help with the college search: Getting the help of a professional guidance counselor can be tough: a majority of high schools in NYC have guidance caseloads ranging from 100 to 300 students per counselor. The challenge is even more daunting given that these counselors typically have many other responsibilities—and may not fully trained to be college counselors.
  • The need for high-quality help was particularly apparent in the schools we studied, where the nonprofit partner groups stepped in to provide essential assistance to students in the application process: Surveys revealed that students and families were justifiably confused and intimidated by the torrent of demands, deadlines and decisions associated with applying to college. Nonprofit partners in the schools we studied provided an invaluable assist to overloaded guidance counselors and teaching staff.

In recent years, the Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made some important steps toward improving college readiness:

  • The graduation rate has increased dramatically, giving thousands more students a chance to apply to college. The number of New York City public high school graduates has increased by a third in recent years. On-time high school graduation rate reached 64.7 percent in 2012, up from 46.5 percent in 2005. And as a result, college enrollment at the City University of New York has climbed sharply. 
  • High schools are now held publically accountable for college and career readiness, with schools being graded on college matriculation and preparation.
  • Principals and teachers now know much more about their students after graduation, thanks to new data on how many students are going to college and whether they remain there.

Still, a great deal more work must happen if the city is to meet its goals of substantially improving both college preparation and the number of students who go to college and complete a degree program there.

The city needs to reward schools that provide students with opportunities for independent work similar to what they will experience in college. Today, schools get credit for offering college level and Advanced Placement courses, but there is no attempt to review the overall quality of each high school's curricular offerings. Teachers focus primarily on getting their students to pass the state's five Regents exams in order to graduate.

In addition, New York City students need high quality college guidance services. Our surveys showed that many students could not depend on their own parents for help with the college search, so trained, dedicated school staff is vital.

This report offers a number of recommendations to the next mayor and chancellor, including:

  • The city Department of Education should institute additional Progress Report measures that identify and reward those schools that are most effectively preparing students for independent work and the demands of college.
  • City Hall and the Department of Education should press the New York State Education Department to allow more "portfolio" high schools, which use different assessments than the Regents exams.
  • The Department of Education should develop a system-wide post-secondary counseling curriculum to ensure all students are taught about their college options, how to prepare for college and what to expect in the workforce.
  • City Hall and the Department of Education must provide schools with either a full-time, trained college counselor or sufficient outside help from nonprofit partners or other paid providers.

The lessons learned and reflected in this report were based on a $4 million, 3-year demonstration project initiated and supported by Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation. The foundation launched College Ready Communities in 2009 as a major component of its investment in community-based initiatives that advance college access and readiness for underserved students across New York City.

In addition to research support from the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, funding for this report was provided by the Capital One Foundation, the Donors' Education Collaborative and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.