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Better Learning

As the vital role of community-college education in the country’s economic future is touted nationwide, Hudson Valley is recognized for its high rate of student success

by Ali Hibbs on May 18, 2011

“America is slowly coming out of the Recession of 2007—only to find itself on a collision course with the future: not enough Americans are completing college.”

This is the disheartening conclusion reached by labor economists at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in a study published last summer titled “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018.” The study predicts the United States will need 22 million new college degrees by 2018, and that we will be at least 3 million post-secondary degrees—associate’s or higher—short of that number. Additionally, it anticipates that we will need 4.7 million new workers with post-secondary certificates in technical, production and health occupations, among others. The study concludes that this disparity translates into lost economic opportunity for millions of Americans over the next several years and is likely to have a significant negative impact on economic recovery nationwide.

In challenging economic times, the financial burden of a post-secondary education can often be daunting enough to deter those with jobs, families and other fiscal responsibilities. A poll released by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post last Sunday revealed that a full 75 percent of Americans believe that college is just too expensive for most to afford. Ironically, that education represents the only dependable pathway to greater financial security over the next decade. According to the GU study, the share of jobs in the U.S. economy requiring post-secondary education jumped from 28 to 59 percent between the years of 1973 and 2008, and is expected to grow to 63 percent over the next decade— leaving high school graduates (and dropouts) in the virtual dust. The days when a high school diploma and good work ethic guaranteed a middle-class income in America are gone and are not likely to return.

The administration of President Barack Obama has publicly recognized the necessity of increasing the number of college graduates in order to achieve greater national economic security, enable individual success and restore the fading notion of the “American Dream.” During a trip to Hudson Valley Community College last year, the president specifically stressed the importance of two-year schools as a crucial component of his ambitious plan to increase the number of American college graduates to the highest proportion in the world by 2020. “Jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience,” he said. “Think about that. Twice as fast. We will not fill those jobs, or keep those jobs here in America, without graduating more students, including millions more students from community colleges.”

(According to the GU study, American universities and colleges would need to increase the number of degrees they confer by a full 10 percent each year to simply cover the predicted deficit.)

Historically, community colleges often have gotten a bad rap, sometimes being referred to as the 13th grade. There have been preconceptions that students at these schools are less serious and the coursework is less challenging. That perception has been compounded by low graduation rates at many community colleges around the country.

“Nationally, community colleges enroll over 6 million students, and that number is likely to grow. The problem is that too few are actually succeeding. Within three years of entering a two-year college, fewer than 40 percent of the students are graduating with a degree or transferring to a four-year institution,” says Josh Wyner, executive director for the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. The problem, it seems, is that no common set of standards exists within the community-college sector. “With fewer than half of the students actually getting what they came for—and more and more students going—it’s really important to figure out how community colleges can get better at enabling students to succeed.”

The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization that specializes in dealing with difficult policy issues, began offering the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence this year in an effort to determine best practices in the community-college sector. “The goal is really to galvanize community colleges around a definition of excellence that aligns to student outcomes, and then figure out what it is that the best community colleges do to get there,” says Wyner. The winner gets a cash prize of $700,000, and three runners-up receive $100,000 each.

The process of determining the winners has three stages. The first, which already has been completed, involves scouring national data and identifying the top 10 percent of schools in specific areas reflecting student success. That list was published last month and boasts seven schools in New York State: CUNY Kingsborough Community College, Erie Community College, SUNY College of Technology at Canton, Corning Community College, Onandaga Community College and, locally, our own Hudson Valley Community College. (Texas, Kentucky, Kansas and Florida were the only states with more schools making the list than New York, with Florida claiming twice as many.)

“What do they do differently? They graduate or transfer, on average, just over half their students within three years of entry, compared to 38 percent for other community colleges,” says Wyner. “So one thing is that they graduate students. They also tend to graduate minority students at a much higher rate—44 percent compared to 31 percent. And they award more degrees every year than their peers do—almost 50 percent more degrees per 100 students. Now, how do they get there? That’s what we’re going to be using the rest of the year to figure out.”

After identifying the top 120 community colleges, those schools are invited to fill out applications, and 10 finalists will be selected. Those 10 schools will then be visited, and that, said Wyner, “is where we’ll really learn something. The applications should tell us quite a bit about how the students are doing, but the visits will enable us to learn what the schools themselves are doing.”

The new prize was announced last October, during a White House Community College summit hosted by Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden and a community-college instructor of 18 years. “We believe that strengthening the community-college system is critical if we are going to provide America’s workers, students just finishing high school and going on to community colleges, workers who are mid-career with the kind of innovative tools they need to compete in the global economy,” said Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. During the summit, the administration committed to a general plan for reforming and improving community colleges that included building partnerships with businesses and organizations, such as the Aspen Institute, and the improvement of developmental and adult education.

“Now, you may ask, why are we here at Hudson Valley,” said Obama during his ’09 visit. “We’re here because this is a place where anyone with the desire to take their career to a new level or start a new career altogether has the opportunity to pursue that dream. This is a place where people of all ages and backgrounds—even in the face of obstacles, even in the face of personal challenges—can take a chance on a brighter future for themselves and for their family.”

According to Wyner, community colleges like Hudson Valley are so vitally important for exactly that reason: unmatched accessibility. “They’ll generally admit anyone who has a high school education, so they’re incredibly accessible and relatively affordable at a time when Americans are increasingly viewing college as not affordable,” he says. Community colleges represent, he believes, a crucial inroad for anyone seeking to change their economic situation, begin a new career, learn new skills, or increase their occupational value in a shaky job market.

‘No matter what your background is,” says Andrew Matonak, president of Hudson Valley Community College, “we can find a place for you.” He takes obvious pride in the fact that a large number of students who graduate from Hudson Valley do so against considerable odds. “We have many students who experience things in their lives or during their college career that make getting an education difficult. We do everything we can to help them overcome any barriers that might be between them and what they come here to achieve.”

Matonak believes that Hudson Valley made it into the top 10 percent due to an academic culture that is student-centered and based on what he called a “trying-to-make-a-difference philosophy.” Honor students and those transferring to four-year schools can benefit financially from attending a community college, but, according to Matonak, they are not the ones who stand to reap the biggest rewards when the school does its job well. Students who graduate from high school unprepared for higher education (recent estimates place that number somewhere between 60 and 75 percent) are almost certain to fail at a four-year school and often lack the skills to succeed in their local community colleges. Schools like Hudson Valley serve as a bridge for those students and provide them with guidance and remediation services needed to successfully realize their academic goals. Other institutions may, and all-too-often do, simply let such students fall through the cracks.

“A lot of students—and potential students—don’t realize the scope of services that we have available on campus,” says Dennis Kennedy, director of communications and marketing at Hudson Valley. “Everything from helping students with learning or physical disabilities to those that may need special mentoring or advising outside of the classroom or academic framework. We provide emotional or other counseling. A large number of students do take advantage of these services in one way or another. It’s one way that we try to provide a student-focused environment and ensure that they can succeed here and in life.”

Currently the second-largest post-secondary school in the Capital Region, Hudson Valley has approximately 14,000 students and offers more than 70 degree and certificate programs through four schools: business, engineering and industrial technologies, health sciences and liberal arts and sciences. The college has degree programs leading to immediate employment and others more suitable for transferring students, but it also offers a remarkable host of vocational programs and classes for non-degree students.

Non-degree programs at Hudson Valley provide substantial local resources that are often overlooked by those who could benefit from post-secondary education opportunities other than a degree program. Certification classes in areas such as solar energy, medical transcription, computer software and even plumbing are available through the Workforce Development Institute. The CEEBS program offers energy-efficiency and building-science courses designed to prepare students for the Building Performance Institute certification examinations. The program provides free training to disadvantaged single parents in areas pertaining to job-seeking and retention: workplace skills, resume and cover-letter writing, personal vocational counseling, interviewing and basic computer skills. Other programs also provide unique opportunities for local government and businesses through special training programs and employee-matching.

Matonak thinks that the reputation of community colleges is changing. “It used to be that high schools would be encouraging students to go on to get a four-year degree, but they’re starting to realize that there are a lot of really good $40,000 to $50,000 jobs that you can get with an associate’s degree,” he says, adding that a student who attends Hudson Valley and then transfers to a four-year institution such as RPI would earn the same degree for 40-percent less than it would cost a student who attends RPI for all four years. “And RPI tells us that they love our students, that they actually do better than their native students once they get there.”

It’s easy to see why. Hudson Valley is even reaching into local high schools to begin engaging with students early in a further effort to ensure preparedness. Assessment testing, college-level credits and courses that lead directly into specific Hudson Valley programs are available to students before they graduate high school. “We have a really interesting program with Ballston Spa that we’re testing right now regarding the new technologies, alternative energies, green technologies,” says Matonak. “They’re actually going to be teaching courses in the high school during senior year and, in some cases, they’ll be bussing students to our TEC-SMART facility in Malta where they can do lab and theory work. That moves right into our program; it’s seamless.”

A physical testament to the school’s commitment to the future, the TEC-SMART (Training and Education Center for Semiconductor Manufacturing and Alternative and Renewable Energies) facility opened just last year, and construction on a new science building is scheduled to begin this summer.

“I can’t say enough good things about Hudson Valley,” says New York State Sen. Neil Breslin. “It’s just the most wonderful place to get ready workers for nanotechnology and the foundries and any other business, and it’s a great place for people who can’t afford a four-year college but can save thousands of dollars by doing two years and then going on to a four-year school. It’s the difference between being able to afford a four-year education and not being able to afford it.” Breslin’s lesser-mentioned oldest brother, Mark, attended Hudson Valley years ago before going on to get his engineering degree from Union College and starting his own company. “He makes more money than all the rest of us put together,” says Breslin, who isn’t at all surprised that Hudson Valley qualified for the Aspen Institute prize.


‘You bet we’re going to send in that application. But you know what? The financial awards mean nothing to me,” says Matonak regarding the competition. It’s what the prize represents that matters to him. “To be in the top 10 percent of community colleges based on student success means that this college is doing a lot of things right. It makes me proud that there is some recognition of all the individuals who come together day by day to help these students.”

It’s the first year that the Aspen Institute has offered this prize, but Wyner says they will do so annually from now on. “There are going to be a lot of colleges doing really exceptional work that are not in the top 10 percent,” says Wyner. “We know that. But if you start from campuswide success and then you look at the practices that enabled that, you’re much more likely to find out those things that can be replicated on other campuses. We feel it’s the best way to figure out what fosters student success. The Department of Education, the Department of Labor and the White House have all been very supportive and have been partners with us in figuring out a lot of the pieces of this puzzle. We have some of the best researchers and data analysts working with us and we will be working hard to describe, in accessible ways, what the community college finalists and winners have done so that others can replicate those practices.”

Whether they will be able to discover and implement those practices in time for Obama’s goal to be reached by 2020 remains to be seen. According to the same Pew poll, a full 64 percent of college presidents in the United States believe it is unlikely. Sixty percent of those, however, believe the system of higher education is moving in the right direction. And, while a majority of Americans believe that system fails to provide good value for the money spent, a full 86 percent of college graduates say that college has been a good investment for them personally.

Kathie Smith, a 58-year-old mother of three, certainly seems to think it was for her. Smith graduates from Hudson Valley this month. She got her final grades on Tuesday and she’s thrilled. “This is my first degree!”

Smith isn’t concerned with job-market percentages, best practices or polling numbers. She wanted to do something and she did it. At the age of 15, she had dreams of becoming a surgeon. At 18, she became pregnant and got married instead. So she got an office job in a pediatrician’s office and worked in various doctors’ offices until 2008. When the economy tanked the year before that, she says, she could already see the writing on the wall. “I didn’t think that my job would be there much longer.” In November 2007, Smith decided to go back to school and become a nurse. She started taking night classes and was accepted into the nursing program at Hudson Valley in the fall of 2009.

Without a job, Smith took full advantage of the financial assistance programs available to her at Hudson Valley and worked hard to finish her education in the short time that she did. She hasn’t been to visit any of her kids in two years. “Not everyone does it so intensely,” she says, commenting on the diversity of the student body. “Everyone has different goals or needs. Some are still learning to speak English, others have families to take care of, or jobs, and maybe they’re only able to take a class or two at a time. My children are grown up and my husband has been really supportive, so I had the opportunity to focus all my energies.”

Graduation isn’t until May 21, but Smith has already found a job she’s excited about. She starts in the vascular unit at Albany Medical Center in just a few weeks. “I’m proud of myself,” she says. “Looking back, I’ve had many opportunities fall by the wayside and not accomplished things I wanted to accomplish. I’m proud of this, but everyone else—my children, my husband and friends—are even more proud of me.”

“This is a time that I kind of reflect on the past year and the students that I’ve gotten to know,” says Matonak, referring to the upcoming graduation. “And I think about what kind of world they’re going into and what opportunities they’ll be seeing. The most important thing about any community college is that we are preparing these individuals as best we possibly can to achieve whatever they decide to pursue.”