Remarks for Opening Sessions Faculty Convocation Fall 2023

Thank you for inviting me to be a part of Opening Sessions.  This event is a wonderful opportunity for faculty and staff to reconnect, share ideas, and gear up for the start of the Fall Semester.  And how terrific that – like last year – we’re in person again.  Let me pause to thank our hosts: Fall 2023 Opening Sessions Co-Chairs, Deema Bayrakdar, David Stott, Jasmine Edwards, and Cristina Natale, and Planning Collaborators, Alexa Duque and Jenny Lugo.

So – what to say about the theme you’ve chosen for today’s event: Student Success?

I think of student success on two dimensions:  Student success as outcomes, and student success as strategies — that is, everything we do to ensure that the greatest number of our students achieve the outcomes they seek.

Student success as a set of outcomes is pretty straight-forward.  The most important one is the completion of a program of study, earning the corresponding credential, and moving smoothly to the next step on one’s educational pathway (for example, transfer to a Baccalaureate program at a 4-year school), or to a rewarding job.

At LaGuardia this can be an ESL student in the TELC moving to a higher-level course, a student passing the GED exam and enrolling in a degree or workforce training program, an EMT getting hired by the Fire Department, a plumber passing the NCCER exam (the national certification exam for building trades), and, of course, 2,000-plus graduates on the Queens College quad in June waving their associate degrees in celebration, whose ultimate success arrives when they earn their Baccalaureate degrees at the four-year colleges to which they transfer.  Student success at community colleges takes many forms.

For those students in their caps and gowns on that lush lawn in Flushing let’s pause to take note of where we are after the pandemic.  Remember that the standard performance metric for the roughly 1,200 community colleges in the US is the percentage of first-time, full-time students that earn their associate degrees within three years.

By this measure, LaGuardia’s highest graduation rate ever was 32 percent in 2020.  Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the rate fell to 29 percent in 2022.  If you give students more time it increases.  Our highest four-year graduation rate is 37 percent; our highest five-year rate is 39 percent.  Beyond that – giving students even more time — it doesn’t noticeably improve.

According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University about 40 percent of community college students in the US earn a credential within six years.  So, our success at LaGuardia is about average.  Shouldn’t we try to be better than average?

For part-time students the graduation rate is much lower than full-time students.  Our highest is a 22 percent graduation rate for part-time students after seven years of study.  That’s a long time to earn a degree from what we used to call a “two-year college”, but for many low-income students who need to work to support their families it’s their path to a college credential and, hopefully, a raise or a better job.

When evaluating outcomes “success” should be judged from the student’s point of view.  Students are the best arbiters of their own experience.  We may think we can define success for our students, but it’s far better to ask what success looks like to them.  Raise the bar if needed, but don’t lower it.

Of course, sometimes new students aren’t sure of what success means for them.  If a student isn’t sure why she’s here, if she can’t tell you what success looks like, help her visualize it.  Show her potential outcomes.  Help her explore the educational and career possibilities that excite her.  Remember – you can’t dream what you can’t see.  We can help our students see brighter futures for themselves and their families, made possible by their LaGuardia educations.

For most of our students, success in college is not an abstraction; it’s a critical step toward career success.  Student success at LaGuardia should lead to career success.

Like virtually all college students, LaGuardia students want a college education that will help them get a well-paying job in a field they’re interested in.  They want a rewarding career.  They want to make good money.  They want to lift their families into the American middle class, or beyond.  I never met a poor student who wanted to stay that way.

Regarding student success at a strategic level here are some fundamentals:

First, student success is everyone’s responsibility.

To drive home the point that everyone at LaGuardia plays a role in student success let’s think about two types of strategies: those that support success in the classroom, and those that support success in a student’s overall college experience.  Success in class; success in college.  Success as an accounting major; success as a CUNY student.  The strategies and tactics in these buckets are mutually reinforcing.  They should drive a virtuous cycle of student support.

All of us — faculty, staff, maintenance workers, administrators, public safety officers — contribute in countless ways to student success at LaGuardia.  No matter what our jobs are we must be united in our commitment to do all we can – each one of us — to ensure successful outcomes for our students.  It’s our shared obligation, our common cause, a commitment that unites us even when we have different views on how best to achieve it.

I will say it again and I know I will hear moans and groans from some of you — Students are like customers.  It’s important to see students as customers and then strive to give them excellent customer service.  After all, they’re paying for their LaGuardia education and, beyond the money, they’re devoting a lot of time and effort to it.  Remember: college represents a significant opportunity cost for low-income students. (Many of our students’ families would rather their children be working.)

If you don’t think our students and their families are looking for a solid return on their LaGuardia investment spend some time with our hard-working financial aid staff.  They can tell you what students and their families endure when trying to figure out how to pay for college.  A full-time minimum wage job in NYC pays $31,200 a year.  Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Queens for a year is about the same amount.  LaGuardia costs $5,000 a year, plus expenses.  For low-income Queens families LaGuardia is a luxury item.

Yes, most of our students qualify for Pell, and some for TAP.  Those are important government subsidies, to be sure, but, remember you only get them once.  They are dollar-limited, GPA-limited, and time-limited.  And the government doesn’t give refunds to students who don’t have successful outcomes.  Nor does CUNY.

Here’s a closing thought:  What if we made exceptional student success the distinguishing feature of LaGuardia?

Remember, by design and regulation for the most part we offer prospective LaGuardia students the same degrees in the same disciplines at the same prices as the other CUNY community colleges.  Are we really so different – from a potential applicant’s point of view — from Queensborough, BMCC, Kingsborough, or the others?  If a critical distinction is our location – our proximity to the 7 train – is that enough to set us apart?

We need to differentiate ourselves.  What better way to do that than to dedicate ourselves to ensuring exceptional student success in the classroom, in the college, and in careers for our students?  That means striving for the same high levels of college and career success for all LaGuardia students regardless of their backgrounds, household income, gender, race, or ethnicity.  We are only as successful as our least successful students.

In my Fall Report presentation on Friday, September 29 I’ll speak more about this challenge, and with my colleagues share updates from across the college.  In the meantime, I wish you all the best for a terrific Opening Sessions event today, and a wonderful start of the semester.

Thank you.