The Crippling Weight of the ‘Last Straw’

Vince Boudreau, Dean

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

The Office of Student Success was our earliest and most ambitious innovation at the Colin Powell School. It represents our commitment to a goal that we cherish, and must still pursue: to ensure, insofar as possible, that no student falls through the cracks.

In our early imaginings, that office would primarily take on higher-order advisement—guiding students to the right classes, to be sure, but also helping them seek out internship opportunities, manage scholarship and leadership programs, and forge connections between their classroom work and professional and service trajectories. We’re proud of our programs in that direction, and we’ve worked every year to make them stronger and more effective.

But early in this work, we confronted an unsettling realization. The people working in that office were devoting far more time than any of us imagined to helping students solve their administrative problems. As one member of the office recently said: 80 percent of our  time is devoted to serving 20 percent of our students, and those issues are almost all bureaucratic. It’s a telling assessment. As we seek for ways to enhance student success, huge elements of the answer cannot be found in esoteric educational theory, but in working to clear mundane bureaucratic and administrative barriers to student progress and success.

Underlying Barriers

These bureaucratic barriers, however, often lie hidden beneath the surface of a student’s experience of the college, cumulatively eroding their resolve and capacity to cope with other difficulties. In consequence, all of us—students and observers—might be tempted to explain away a student’s breaking point as entirely due to some unforeseen personal crisis, or the grinding pressures of some chronic hardship.

It’s often surprising how thin the last straw may be. A student loan refund that is delayed, a single course taken in error, or the inaccurate evaluation of a transcript: in the end, any of these may knock a precariously situated student off course. In the past several months, I’ve met students at the edge of leaving school because they could not afford books, or could not scrape together the money to see a dentist. We’ve placed newly homeless students in our dormitory, thereby allowing them to continue their studies when they thought they would not. One young man even stopped attending class because he’d lost his laptop’s charging adapter, was not able to replace it, and so couldn’t use the only computer he had access to at home.

Given the stakes (a student entering college in 2010 can expect to earn $450,000 more than a high school graduate over the course of her life) these final crises seem ridiculously small. So small, in fact, that they only make sense as a proximate cause—that final, last straw—piled on top of an underlying systemic problem.

An individual’s hardship may suggest that we seek out individual remedies in each case—that we in fact adopt a case worker’s approach to student hardship. But we can’t address countless numbers of these cases—because students in crisis often just fade away, rather than laying out their hardship. More importantly, embedded in each seemingly idiosyncratic story were places where a systematic regime of stronger student support could have made that crisis not much more than an annoyance.

Outlining Remedies

We need, in fact, three interrelated remedies.

Inarguably, we still need support for students who encounter emergencies. At the Colin Powell School, a generous donation from The Viola Fund allowed us to create the Viola Emergency Fund for Students facing a financial crisis. Students wishing to apply for support through the Viola Fund should secure a letter recommending that support from a faculty member or staff person with knowledge of the situation and then email the director of the Office of Institutional Advancement, Dee Dee Mozeleski, who will arrange a time to meet and discuss options.

Moreover, ample room still exists for our supporters to offer supplemental resources along these same lines. In the past, donors have supplied metro cards to help students travel to campus, funding for student housing, and emergency book funds. The more able we are to steer students through the crisis of the moment, the more easily we will be able to direct their attention to the big picture.

Additionally, students need more information about how to navigate complicated bureaucratic systems. Student advocates in our Office of Student Success are meant to do much of this work, but they find themselves spending most of their time solving problems for students who’ve already been tripped up in some way. A more proactive system equips students with information and strategies that would help them navigate bureaucratic systems. We’ve already made progress along these lines in our online advising resources. But similar progress in other areas of student/college interaction is crucial. We can begin by looking at existing models that have shown success. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, for instance, made progress in helping students untangle one of the most convoluted but important sets of rules they will face, those surrounding financial aid:Something along these lines might be a very good model for CCNY students, and it’s an area we’re beginning to explore.

Finally, we need to make the search for more manageable and responsive bureaucratic systems a top priority at CCNY. We are an institution that has been in unremitting financial difficulty for decades—in truth, since New York’s fiscal crisis in the late 1970s. Over that span, the easy response to economic hardship has often been to reduce the number of people in key service offices: financial aid, admissions, registrar and bursar. Such reductions often escape the attention of most people. They do not, after all, result in fewer classes, or higher tuition, or program cutbacks. Steadily, however, they have undercut the capacity of students to manage the crucial and often bewildering side of achieving college success: the management of everything that takes place outside of the classroom. We’re only now learning how critical—and critically difficult—those management challenges can be. A genuine commitment to student success requires that we invest in the capacity of these offices as a way to invest in our students.

New Investments for a ‘Changing Financial Landscape’

Vince Boudreau, Dean











by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

This summer, the Pew Charitable Trusts published a report that got my attention. The report, Federal and State Funding of Higher Education: A Changing Landscape, broke down the numbers and found that as state funding continues to dwindle, federal support has increased. This is a crucial shift in the financing model for public education, with tremendous implications for the Colin Powell School, its students, and the future of public education.

While state contributions typically show up as support for specific institutions, federal dollars generally arrive as grants, loans, and tax relief to individual students. Historically, state aid to institutions accounted for the lion’s share of public funding to colleges like The City College of New York. But in recent years, shifts in funding profiles made state and federal contributions to education more equal. Hence, even as we bemoan the drop in state support for our campus—in the past five years, state funds fell from 48 percent of our operating budget to just about 30 percent as of this year— the hidden story has been that federal dollars have been rising at just about the same rate. On our books, they show up as tuition revenue rather than public support—but the amount of public monies devoted to higher education have remained more stable than an exclusive focus on state contributions suggest.

Understanding this new funding context means understanding that if we lose students—if we fail to help them navigate their way through the complex of admissions, registration, and financial aid—we are losing public tax support as it is currently and increasingly being allocated.

This shift in financing is an unwelcome one, but trend lines over the past 25 years are unambiguous: states are retreating from their support of public universities. We have always been concerned with student retention, because we’ve always been concerned about our students’ success. Going forward, we have also have financial reasons why we must address student retention, which should begin by clearly understanding the concerns of a typical Colin Powell School student.

Our students are likely to come from an underrepresented social or ethnic group. Many of our students belong to families living below the poverty line. Surveys have shown us that 80 percent of CCNY student respondents were born in a country outside of the United States (while less than 20 percent are here on student visas). Together, those figures suggest that huge sections of our student population are seeking to make a home for themselves in the United States. But it also suggests that many may be inexperienced and ill-equipped to navigate the administrative hurdles that one must clear to get state and federal grants, loans, and tax credit. Our student may be the first in her family to attend college—and perhaps, therefore, also the first to contemplate filling out a financial aid eligibility form. She probably works a substantial number of hours each week. She may also bear the responsibility of steering immigrant parents through governmental systems and societal norms. She may not have health insurance. She may not be documented. She may have come from a deeply distressed public school.

So our students may have tremendous potential, but there’s a good chance that they come to college deeply unsure of this new environment. Yet the shifts in public financing to higher education make it more important than ever before that they figure things out quickly. As tuition increasingly becomes the way that public colleges secure their budgets, students become increasingly burdened in their role as conduits for that support. The hypothetical formula makes initial sense: Colleges can stabilize their budget by charging higher tuition to students who are eligible for more financial aid. But those assumptions shift responsibility form the college’s relationship with the state to the student’s relationship with the federal education bureaucracy.

And here lies one of the dirty little secrets of public education, particularly in places committed to supporting the aspirations of underserved men and women: While we bemoan the corrosive impact of failing high schools, stressed neighborhoods, poverty, and social instability on educational outcomes, an unimaginably large number of students leave college, or limp to the finish line because they cannot figure out how to navigate the numerous bureaucracies they encounter. Before we lose the students with poor math skills, or an inability to write, we lose countless others who fail to solve some puzzle with its roots in the administrative bureaucracy.

Take, for example, a scenario that is as common as it is frustrating. Over the last few years, restrictions on financial aid have grown increasingly complicated, and computer audits of student courses more unforgivingly sift courses that are deemed necessary from those that do not. Students navigating major and general education requirements need to be more focused on taking required courses, or they risk losing financial aid—typically in the year or month before they graduate. In consequence, some never do.

And then there is the issue of simply having enough qualified people to give the face-time and support that students need. As institutional funding for colleges falls, the easiest and earliest cuts often take place in these service offices, leaving them staffed with fewer—and less experienced— professionals. This leaves us less able to respond to this new context, where institutional solvency is dependent on student retention. Registration, admission, bursar, and financial aid offices need to be regarded as the frontlines in our effort to retain students. Where these offices have eroded, we must shore them up.

All of these factors combine into a complex of new barriers to student educational success, producing a deeply altered tone surrounding public education. Our public universities are, more than ever, cash-strapped and struggling. But they are also, as never before, asking students (rather than legislators, educators, and administrators) to be the problem-solvers, bringing revenue onto campus and helping balance the books. That reverses generations of good education policy and an established sense of who should be looking after whom.

The Public University: Seeing the Whole Picture

Vince Boudreau, Dean












by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

What does it mean to be a public university? For decades, there were two distinct definitions—so bound together that when they became estranged, nobody seemed at first to notice.

On the one hand, public education referred to a finance model in which citizens and government officials pledged support for those working in its schools, and so allocated money from public coffers for that purpose. Students in public universities could expect to pay less for their tuition, and people living in states and cities anticipated supporting that education through their tax expenditures.

A second meaning evoked broader and more soaring ambitions and, for generations, the American public understood that the university system was the greatest of equalizers. Universities helped construct just and prosperous societies; they shored up the foundations of democracy; they contributed insight that helped us resolve some of our most pressing social issues. These universities existed at the intersection of our collective need to be smarter, and our egalitarian inclination to seek progress in the aggregate, to rise or fall as one people. Everyone, in this view, had a stake in the vitality of public universities.

But this collective understanding didn’t hold. In discussions about the role of public education, there was soon confusion—not with what public education was for, but with who it was for.

People began approaching public education with suspicion. Misplaced concerns about undeserved individual entitlement began to shoulder aside our original aspirations. We began to equate support for public education as essentially the transfer of resources with individual students—beneficiaries of largess—and began speculating on who among them, as individuals or categories, deserved that support. This is an impoverished and narrowly calculating formula that no longer allows for a deeper sense of social purpose. In essence, places like City College were forced to revisit our most important founding discussion, first broached in 1847: Was a university education for the elite only, or for everyone?

We founded the Colin Powell School after a decade of building out scholarship and fellowship programs that recognized the great potential and outstanding achievements of some of our very best students. As we did so, we hoped both to provide for them in extraordinary ways what others receive as a matter of course, and to suggest the potential of so many outside of these programs. It was good work. But we moved from programming that centered on a collection of leadership programs to a school serving over 2,600 students because those opportunities should not have been extraordinary—but rather the routine provision of a public education institution that functioned as it was originally intended. Building out this capacity is the current and great task of our school.

We must reframe discussions on the costs of the public university. A crucial starting point is that any conception of public that separates beneficiaries from the social whole is inadequate. Cutting financial support for public institutions results in higher social costs of living in a place where opportunities are hoarded and prospects for advancement seem dim and distant. We measure those costs in violence, in hopelessness, in sickness and insecurity. We measure them in the widening spaces between those who are privileged and those who are not—in de facto economic re-segregation, in under-employment, in achievement gaps and school-to-prison pipelines. We measure them, as well, in the horrible certainty that vast stores of talent, generation upon generation, lie wasted.

We are, in fact, in the middle of a great crisis in our ability to think of ourselves as a whole people, and to plan for the prosperity of that whole. Over the past decades, the decay of the middle class has not happened in isolation—it has taken place in direct relationship to the decay of visionary institutions set up to create and nurture the middle class.

As state budgets around the nation are cut, often the first thing that is affected are our schools. The way forward cannot be assembled from so-called merit-based programs, designed to reward individuals over ostensibly less talented or deserving peers. Opportunity should not be a prize or an award, but a basic provision of our systems and institutions.

In blog posts to come, I’ll be exploring the way this mission plays out at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, building on this discussion of why we should care about public education in the first place. We’ll look at what happens within the walls of our school, how and when students begin to make sense of the college setting, and the myriad ways in which they sometimes don’t. We’ll also explore some of the other, broader purposes of the public university, including its capacity to speak in particularly necessary ways on some of the most important questions that confound our nation. We’ll also look at the legacy of public education on our social fabric and the ways that things may have shifted. In the end, I’ll discuss what we’re working to achieve at the Colin Powell School–to maintain the truest vision of public education in an environment grown increasingly hostile to our founding purposes.