The Eighty-Five Percent: Or, Why CUNY is New York’s Best Kept Secret

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On July 1, I left my friends, family, students, and neighbors at Duke University, where I had enjoyed as rich and fulfilling a career for over two decades as any academic could aspire to, to take up a new position among the distinguished faculty at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. To people who haven’t been paying attention, this choice may seem eccentric. Why leave two (!) distinguished chairs at a top, private university to join the nation’s largest public urban university at this historical moment, when so much public education is under duress? To people who keep track of these things, however, the Graduate Center is “trending.” Not only does it have as distinguished a faculty as the city’s fine, elite, private research universities, but, in the last few years, several of us have moved here to the GC from elite institutions—Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Penn, Princeton, to name only the ones I happen to know about.

Why? And why now do so many of us want to be part of this public institution for graduate training? There are many reasons of course but, for me, one of the most compelling is summed up in a number. Let’s call it the eighty-five percent. That is the percentage of CUNY’s full-time undergraduate students who are free of student loan debt free. That number is nearly 80% at graduation time. CUNY undergrads may well be working one or two or even three jobs to make their education happen–but to be relieved of exhorbitant tuition costs is amazing. It is also counter to the national trend when higher education has been so severely defunded that most individual students and their families are shouldering a tremendous share of their individual higher educational costs.

Attending college is voluntary. You do it for yourself, your future, and also, for society that wants to stay ahead, you are doing it because you are your society’s future. It is hard work staying in college against the odds of cost and other responsibilities. As a society, we’ve abandoned our collective sense that you need to help young people shoulder a burden that is all our futures. In contrast again to the national trend, CUNY offers tuition-free education to nearly six in 10 full-time undergraduates thanks to federal, state and CUNY financial aid. Some 22,000 students earned CUNY bachelor’s degree last year and a large number graduated without the soul-crushing tuition loans faced by many graduates of private or public or for-profit universities in other cities and states.

What a wonderful gift to the students, their families, the city of New York, and society at large! At a time when everyone is concerned about the astronomical cost of higher education and is predicting a bursting of the student loan bubble that will dwarf 2008’s real estate disaster, New York (both the state and the city) has invested in quality, affordable higher education. Hiding in plain sight, in the city of New York (which is not exactly noted for its modesty or invisibility), is a system that offers low-cost, quality higher education to its vast population.

That is one of the most compelling reasons I came here. I wanted to be part of this big, bold educational system and learn more about how it works, from the inside.


What It Means To Attend College Without Debilitating Tuition Loans

To know you can graduate without the crushing exigency of loans allows you to pursue your dreams–whatever those dreams may be–of a more productive adulthood. For some, CUNY offers what is often called (too narrowly, in my opinion) “vocational training.” By that term, many people may mean STEM fields or practical fields such as accounting or nursing and certainly, for many, a low or no-tuition allows for a possibility of occupational training for such careers. Those are wonderful ambitions.

There is another side too. When not faced with crushing tuition loans, one can explore many vocations, not just the one that will most immediately pay off the tuition loans. Recently, on a visit to LaGuardia Community College, for example, I met students who were pursuing their dream of a career in the fine and performing arts, dedicated students who hoped to pursue future productive careers in theater, art, multimedia, and music who dreamt of future careers in the arts. In the cultural capital of America, that’s not only a vocation but a contribution to the city’s calling card.

That variety of different aspirations, different talents, different ambitions is exactly what higher education is for–to be able to help students achieve the education that can turn a love into a productive career.

All the research shows, choices narrow as the tuition debt mounts. The research also shows that, unless you pursue a career you love, you are not likely to invest the time and energy that allows you to succeed to your full potential in that career. Low tuition allows students to pursue careers which may not be lucrative but which may be soul-satisfying and which, because of their interest and determination, can be productive and successful. Not just a job, a career, a good life. Grinding debt encourages one to simply grind out a major that one thinks will earn one a decent income. In the nation’s cultural capital, that isn’t low cost: it is priceless.


Tuition-Free in the Natiion’s Most Expensive City

In the seven short weeks since I’ve been proud to call myself a CUNY faculty member, I have met some of the most devoted teachers, brilliant researchers, and gifted undergraduate and graduate students that I have ever encountered. So my two questions are: how does CUNY pull this off and why doesn’t everyone (including New Yorkers) realize we have a model here of affordable, quality higher education that others could learn from?

Believe me, as someone moving here from the hip, lively and low cost city of Durham, North Carolina, I am acutely aware of the downside of New York: its pricetag. It costs an incredible amount to live here. I know, because my former city of Durham has profited from New York’s price tag: Durham has become the Williamsburg of the South, rivaling Brooklyn in the per capita number of artists, indy musicians, locovore bistros, and artisan coffee roasters. My entire Durham house is but a down payment on a one-bedroom apartment in NY.

No New Yorker needs to be reminded of the income inequality lurking in the shadow of all those Trump towers. Yet there is one remarkable bargain here: I can send my kid to college here in NYC practically free. Or I can retool myself, taking advantage of this low-cost educational system. I can afford to learn a new trade or upgrade my current one at one of CUNY’s twenty-four colleges and community colleges.

As a CUNY student, I might even have the freedom from soaring tuition costs to make it (somewhat) possible to live in the nooks and crannies, the outposts and enclaves of this great city, without worrying about my student loan turning into a bombed-out credit rating that will hurt my future. I can be an artist here, or a fashion designer, or a programmer, or an entrepreneur, or, well, anything I want my twenties to allow me the possibility of being. Why isn’t CUNY being touted as the single most important resource that New York has to offer?

As a CUNY student, I am the Eighty-Five Percent. What that offers to a city as diverse, as populated with immigrants and first-generation college-ready students, is a gift beyond measure.


Of Course There Are Serious Problems To Attend To (i.e. And Please Remember the Faculty!)

Are there problems? Of course.

  • As with all largely commuter campuses where a typical student might be working full-time or have family obligations while taking classes, the CUNY drop out rate before completing a degree is far too high. We know having a degree is a barrier to being considered for jobs. It does not assure you of one but it can assure you won’t get one. So finding ways to help students find a path to graduation, to do all we can, against socio-economic conditions of living and working and going to school, is the big challenge of every professor, adviser, graduate student, staff member, and fellow student in the system. Working collectively towards higher graduation rates throughout the twenty-four colleges is a goal everyone I’ve met is working towards.
  • For faculty in the CUNY system, there are drawbacks as well. CUNY have a heavy workload and are not paid well enough. Period. Of course, they should be better subsidized. They deserve it. They have earned it. As with any economics in a system with finite resources, there is no question adding in one area, takes away in another–unless there is new revenue into the system. Perhaps if the taxpayers of NY understand the dividend they receive from this remarkable system, they will continue to invest in higher education–and invest at pre-1980s levels. These profs deserve that support. They give so much. This is one reason the Futures Initiative is dedicated to reinvesting in public education.
  • Same for graduate students teaching in the CUNY colleges. (NB: At the Graduate Center, people, under the leadership of President William Kelly, worked hard for over a decade to improve the situation. In fact, older students jokingly refer to the more recent students, coming under the new compensation terms, as “The Millionaires.” Graduate Fellows now teach one course a term not two, in the second, third, and fourth years, as part of their fellowships. They enter on five-year fellowships with support comparable to that of many other graduate programs in the country. This is a hard-won victory. Should they be paid more? Of course! That is another reason the Futures Initiative is dedicated to reinvestment in public higher education, for better graduate student compensation too.
  • There are too many adjuncts (the part-time, contingent faculty who teach so many college courses these days, not just at CUNY but everywhere, including at the Dukes and Harvards). This is a national problem, a crisis even. It is a problem at CUNY as in the rest of higher education in the U.S. As subsidy declines, continent faculty who are underpaid, have no benefits, and no job security are bearing the burden. That is a debilitating, destructive system everywhere.
  • These are real, significant problems. I do not want to ignore them but to make them part of our advocacy for re-investment in public higher education, in New York and everywhere. It’s our future and it’s key to the Futures Initiative.


The Graduate Center and Training the Next Generation of Professors

Even adding this necessary and urgent dose of realism, I feel enormous optimism about the system of CUNY professorial apprenticeship that is the Graduate Center. Nearly a third of the undergraduate courses in the CUNY system are taught by the Graduate Center’s four thousand or so doctoral students. That means the students most dedicated to their own research and future academic careers are also teaching a large percentage of CUNY undergraduates. That is a vital, invigorating system–and happens to be the method of “teaching as learning, learning as teaching” most relevant to the particular historical moment we are living in when change is rampant, and we all have to learn how to be better learners.

The classes at CUNY are relatively small, in some fields and at some campuses hovering around thirty per class. That’s a class size many private schools charging $50,000 a year tuition would boast about. Introductory classes in the colleges are often taught by graduate students, who take full charge of the classes, form them, are responsible for the grading and assessments and assignments and (depending on the field and the campus) the syllabus and other features of the course too. The Graduate Center is concerned with the quality of teaching and there are many excellent programs dedicated to pedagogy. My own new position, directing the Futures Initiative, will be a work in progress, with direction spearheaded by student interest and faculty interest, and a collaboration with so many others at CUNY already dedicated to pedagogy and innovation, and to the systemic intertwining of research and teaching.

As I begin my travels around the CUNY system, I see the benefits of graduate students dedicated to their own education working with the dedicated professors throughout the CUNY system and adding their own new energies and commitments into that system. I’ve seen so much innovation in the colleges and community colleges, even in my short seven weeks here. I see not just quality education but educational leadership for the world we live in now. I’m truly impressed with the quality of the teaching and the learning. I don’t think most New Yorkers have any idea how good it is. There is a vibrancy in the system, with so many new hires (we applauded 70 new hires at LaGuardia yesterday), so many doctoral students, all sharing their passion with the undergraduate students.

To my mind, that structure of Graduate Center students learning and teaching at the same time not only empowers everyone, at every level, but it is the ideal structure of peer-learning for the interactive, connected world we live in now. At many PhD training research universities, the “plum” for graduate students is a fellowship that relieves you of having to teach. That reinforces the wrong values: the implication there is that teaching is somehow demeaning or distracting from the real job of doing research and that the truly gifted graduate students are rewarded by not having to teach.

At the Graduate Center, teaching and research go hand in hand, as they should. Teaching a course each year during your second, third, and fourth years is excellent preparation for the life of an academic. Pursuing cutting-edge research while teaching is the balancing act that never stops. And shouldn’t if you believe that the goal of a university education is a constant interplay of the latest and best research with the best teaching.

Teaching what you know and love to eager undergraduates is also the best way I know to really learn a field and remain cynical, flexible, motivated, and inspired by that field.


Peer Learning is Peer Teaching

When people ask me what I will be doing in the Futures Initiative, I always answer that the real question is what will the students and faculty who join the Futures Initiative want to do. For example, we are currently scheduling an information session for early October. During that session, we will talk about the course we are offering in the Spring and I hope that we will talk no more than five minutes and then leave the room–leaving those coming to find out information about the program to build the syllabus. If that is an exciting prospect, building something with people you have never met before, sharing expertise and learning how to find the expertise of others and connect with it, the Futures Initiative is probably for you. If you find that suspect or want to step in and control the process or want the professors to step in to control the proces, the Futures Initiative is definitely not for you!


The whole point is that much of our way of formal learning dictates the methods and measures the outcomes before it ever really empowers learners to find the best, most creative, most innovative ways to learn. How you learn, how you become a collective, how you contribute what you know to a group, and how you learn to listen–truly and really and deeply listen–in order to move towards a goal are key. How you learn patience is one of the most important skills in collaboration and we rarely teach the art of working towards a goal that may not be exactly your own today in order to build solidarity and trust and a movement that might more effectively build something far more consequential tomorrow. The Futures Initiative is all about that. But the actual participants will be the ones to find the way and lead one another in that process: to my mind, that is already a revolutionary pedagogy.


Teaching and Research for the World We Live in Now

Even with that open-ended pursuit of student-directed knowledge, I should underscore that the Futures Initiative has a specific, digital and public impetus. Our argument is that on April 22, 1993, our world was changed when the scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Operations released the Mosaic 1.0 browser to the general public. By one estimate, Internet usage increased that year by 250,000 percent, one of the fastest and most global adaptations of any new technology, and for a powerful new tool that allowed us, for the first time in human history, to have an idea and communicate that idea to anyone else in the world with an Internet connection—without a pause button and without an editor. That is a formidable power and a daunting responsibility that has changed all of our work, social, and civic lives. It has barely made a dent in the Industrial Age model of higher education that we’ve inherited.

The Futures Initiative is dedicated to peer teaching and training, a new system of collaborative and peer training the next generation of college professors. This means rethinking how we learn and credentialize learning for this Do It Yourself, interactive, data-crazed, fast-moving, paradigm changing world of Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of every day peer-learning.

It’s just odd that we have one way of learning outside of the classroom and then we have educational institutions based on silo’d and specialized disciplines divided up in the late nineteenth century that saw the creation of the first graduate schools as well as professional medical, law, nursing, and business schools. We still determine who will get into college with multiple choice tests invented in 1914. We measure productivity, outcomes, and award diplomas using the four-year march to majors and minors, general education and specialized or distributed requirements, devised in the era of the Model T.

The Futures Initiative argues that peer-learning, collaborative practice, and the constant emphasis on how one gains mastery is a core skill in an era of rapid change. Mastering content is importantl; knowing how to master new content, when the paradigms change yet again, is an essential, lifelong skill. Given a world of constant change, knowing how to gain or regain expertise when your field is being updated as frequently as your iPhone’s operating system is a life skill and a success strategy.

The huge lecture hall—the so-called “sage on the stage” model—may have worked in the top-down research university of the Industrial Era but it isn’t working now. Certainly the recent interest in Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOCs) has fizzled because MOOCs digitize the one-directional learning model of the lecture hall, with a canned presentation by someone who has already achieved expertise. In the conventional video format, MOOCs do not offer much opportunity for learning by doing, for rethinking in iterative, integrated, interactive, collaborative modes that the new workplace demands. (Sidenote: This is changing; many inventive professors are playing with turning MOOCs into interactive experiences, as we did last year, in fact, with our MOOC on “The History and Future of Higher Education” where, each week, my face-to-face students served as TA’s encouraging the 18,000+ students online to do some kind of interactive, collaborative, world-wide “jam” or exercise.)

But in the classroom, where we have the opportunity to interact, to inspire, and perhaps even encourage students to stay in school and graduate against all the contingencies and exigencies of their lives, we need to engage and connect. The Futures Initiative encourages graduate students to explore better models of connected learning, to take advantage of the array of digital tools we all use outside of school, and to find the best new ways of doing research in a world where issues of security, privacy, and intellectual property are urgent and where we need to learn new skills for attention and for responsible, credible participation.

Reinvesting in Public Education

There is also a polemical, even “public relations” aspect of the Futures Initiative implicit in its name.We call it the Futures Initiative because, like stock market futures, public education is a collective investment that returns its dividends later. For the last fifty years, the U.S. has seen a decline in support for public education. This is a disaster for civil society. While the rest of the world is amping up its education, we are undercutting our students by cutting the support to higher education so much that it requires ever higher tuition costs. Do we really want a society where only the rich can be educated? What kind of democracy is that? How can that be good for civil society or for a healthy economy in a technological time? The Futures Initiative has as one of its functions the modeling of the benefits of higher education to society in order to encourage reinvestment in public higher education.

College students are voluntary learners: no one forces you to go to college. As such, they are also all of our role models since, in times of great change, we all have to relearn, be constantly open to new skills, new training, new ideas, new modes and practices.

CUNY is a vast and great system of public urban education. Yet most New Yorkers have no idea of how precious its investment in the future is. I’ve heard people say they graduated from CUNY “when it was good.” Well, folks, it’s good again.


Pay attention, New York!

Everyone in the country is looking for a “solution” to the high cost of higher education. There is no magic. MOOCs won’t solve “the problem” of the cost of higher education. We all have to take the educational mission seriously and reinvest in public higher education. That is the first step. The second step is to ensure that the education is as relevant to this historical moment as the systems we’ve inherited were to the late 19th and early 20th centuries for which they were designed. And a final step is for New Yorkers themselves to recognize the importance of the astonishing resource that is CUNY. The eighty-five percent. As a former Durhamite (and a native Chicagoan), it gives me amusing pride to admonish you to be immodest about this remarkable accomplishment: New York, know thyself!


–(Revised Sept. 4, 2014–some statistics have been corrected, updated, or added, and some comments in the above post were clarified and amplified after the comments were added below and after a very useful conversation with my former student Matthew Clark. Special thanks to Matthew for this exchanged and, always, for his continued passion on behalf of higher education, equality, fairness, equity, and adequate compensation. I also made some clarifications after the Graduate Center event with Elizabeth Warren and Graduate Center Professor Paul Krugman).


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309