What's Up With the Gates Foundation Investment in CUNY's New Community College?

Enrollment across all six of the City University of New York City's six community colleges has surged over the last few years, but retention and graduation rates have remain distressingly flat, in some cases even declining. Community colleges are becoming an important player in the race to get more Americans into college, but few have the resources to match most of their four-year peers. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $1 million to help with the planning process for CUNY's New Community College, the first new campus for CUNY in forty years, focused on giving first-generation college student degrees. (See Gates Foundation: Grants for Community Colleges).

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's latest set of educational grants, totalling $9 million, focused mainly on technology-based online learning models at both the high school and college levels. (Read director of education, Daniel Greenstein's IP profile.) The New Community College grant is a comparitively traditional investment, proving that the campus-based model is as important as ever, particularly for students for whom college was not a given, but an unexpected privilege.

It's a privilege that's not without challenges. This is no Animal House. Students are going to have to work hard if they want to fit in the stereotypical college debauchery in between summer sessions, mandatory full-time enrollment for the first year, mandatory and frequent tutoring and counseling, and strict course requirements. It's a resource-intensive approach, both on the part of CUNY and the students. While the students will have fewer choices in their course schedules, New Community College President Scott Evenbeck believes this will increase cohesion and togetherness among the student body. As community colleges, and even CUNY as a whole, are not known for their campus life, this might be a good way to give students the community-building benefits of other colleges.

This resource-intensive approach also means high costs. The average cost per student in a regular community college is about $10,000; at The New Community College, this will likely jump to $30,000 at least at first, though college officials believe this will decrease. Whether this approach is scalable, whether it can be replicated, and whether retention rates will rise, are still uncertain.

These answers to these questions will be coming in soon. The first class will begin in the fall of 2012, with 300 students housed in a building near Bryant Park while a campus on 59th Street is built. CUNY hopes that this campus will one day serve 5,000 students.