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UFT Testimony

Testimony on streamlined college acceptance of NYC public high school graduates

UFT Testimony

Testimony of UFT Vice President Janella Hinds before the New York City Council Education Committee & Higher Education Committee oversight hearing

My name is Janella Hinds, and I’m the vice president for academic high schools of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the union’s more than 190,000 members, I would like to thank the members of the New York City Council’s Education Committee and Higher Education Committee, especially Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph and Higher Education Committee Chair Eric Dinowitz, for holding today’s public hearing on streamlined college acceptance of NYC public high school graduates. 

As advocates for the students of New York City, we were glad to hear of Governor Hochul’s plan to ensure that high-achieving students from across the state have a home at New York’s world-class institutions. Over the next year, we look forward to SUNY developing a direct admissions program that can reach across the state and help more students achieve their potential and to CUNY’s expansion of its existing direct admissions program to further its mission of extending opportunity to students of all backgrounds. Given the important role our public state and city colleges and universities play in providing affordable and high-quality degree programs in this era of rising college costs for our New York City families, the goal of offering high-achieving students from the top 10 percent of graduating high schoolers direct admission to SUNY and CUNY institutions is worthwhile. 

This proposal builds on some of the recommendations we have made to SUNY and CUNY representatives as part of the task force that met during the past few years to discuss how to address the drop-off in applications to our public colleges and universities during COVID. However, we recommend that thoughtful steps be taken to ensure that this initiative is presented and rolled out in a way that is appealing to our high school students. 

If the goal is an increase in actual attendance of our highest achieving students at CUNY and SUNY, versus a simple uptick in applications to our public colleges, the potential experience of becoming a student at these campuses needs to be made more attractive. A key element is to show more clearly what the benefit is for these students to attend CUNY or SUNY instead of a private college or university. Our counselors know the high-quality experiences that are available to young people in our public colleges and universities, but we have seen that some of our students perceive CUNY and SUNY as less challenging or motivating than private institutions. We recommend that this initiative emphasize the opportunities at CUNY and SUNY to participate in honors and accelerated programs such as CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College. In particular, if SUNY had an honors program similar to Macaulay, it would make SUNY significantly more attractive to our highest-achieving students. 

The form of the outreach is often as important as the message. We have found that a letter in the mail is an outdated form of communication for many of our students. Unfortunately, many students’ mailing addresses aren’t up to date, especially for students who move one or more times during their enrollment in our school system. We have also heard from students who receive letters but believe the document or offer is fake and ignore it. Emails can be more effective, especially those sent to their official DOE accounts. However, even with our counselors’ constant reminders to check these accounts, not every student does so. 

In terms of the format of the message, we have found that a long, detailed letter is less effective than quick bullets that go straight to the point. Some students simply look for the place in the message that they have to click to get to the relevant website, while others are eager to learn more and would appreciate an embedded video tailored to their interests. 

Our school counselors are an underutilized resource in sharing information about these opportunities with qualified students and ensuring that they apply for them. Given the challenges of direct notification of students described above, our members are often the ones telling qualified students about these opportunities and helping them to submit the necessary paperwork to apply. A consistent practice of notifying every counselor about which students from their school have received these offers and which email address was used to contact them would be incredibly helpful in ensuring that our members know when to nudge students to access their email accounts. We have found this to be effective in raising student awareness of the Excelsior scholarship program, currently available for the top 15% of students. We also recommend that schools offer dedicated time during the day for students to check their email more regularly. We work diligently to help students learn that it’s important to regularly check their email, as this is an important skill for those entering higher education and the workforce. It is an especially important message for our seniors to hear. 

As noted, financial considerations are also an important factor in college decisions for our students and their families. We have found that although CUNY is free for low-income families and is especially cost-effective for the high-achieving students who are given a full ride as part of their admission to Macaulay Honors College, some students are unaware of this. The financial factor is even more significant for students who are considering SUNY, since we have found that FAFSA and other forms of financial aid normally do not cover the full cost of our students’ attendance there unless they are enrolled in a community college. If the state is seeking to attract our highest-achieving New York City high school students, it will need to meet their full financial need like the private colleges and CUNY do. Some of our students are initially very interested in SUNY, with Stonybrook, Binghamton, and New Paltz all considered top choices for applications. However, once they see the financial aid packages they are offered by SUNY as compared to CUNY or to private schools — which as noted, often are already seen as more prestigious to attend — they end up enrolling elsewhere. Even the state’s Excelsior scholarship covers only tuition, not the fees, room and board and other expenses that can put our students and their families into debt when attending a SUNY school. We recommend that the state particularly examine cases where our highest-achieving students find that enrolling in a private college or university is less expensive than attending one of our New York state or city public institutions and consider ways of addressing this disparity. 

Finally, on a related note, we would like to bring the Council’s attention to two issues around college admissions that have a particular impact on our high school students who are English language learners, including those who are new arrivals to our city. These are the students who disproportionately end up dropping out and not pursuing college, even when they are strong enough academically to thrive in higher education. The first issue is the use of the Accuplacer assessment for students who have been accepted to a CUNY campus but are identified as an English language learner during the application process through transcript review or Regents scores. The intentions of this process are good — the idea is that students are assessed before attending their first college class, so that those who are identified as needing more support in further developing their English language skills are given access to the low-cost CLIP intensive immersion program, which supports them in improving their English skills before they begin paying for their college degree program. 

Unfortunately, a disconnect is happening between the intentions of this program and students’ experience with it. First, the use of Accuplacer isn’t consistent or transparent across CUNY campuses — some require it, others don’t, and students have no way of knowing which do and which don’t. For those that do, the criteria used to determine which students are told to take it and what passing scores are needed to move them forward into college classes isn’t public. Students receive the email notifying them of their Accuplacer requirement after application deadlines for public and private colleges that do not require the test have already passed. In addition, the CLIP program does not specifically prepare students to pass the Accuplacer exam, and its cost of $125 per semester is a challenge for some students, even though students on Medicaid or other social programs pay less. Finally, students who do eventually pass the Accuplacer assessment either too often find themselves without support for reapplying to CUNY or enrolling in their classes, since they are no longer a high school student with access to their counselors — but also don’t yet have access to programs like ASAP within the CUNY system. 

We recommend that CUNY immediately post information about Accuplacer requirements for each campus on their website (including who is required to take it and the passing score required to begin coursework) and begin notifying high school guidance counselors of the names and contact information of students from their school who need to take it. 

We also recommend that CUNY and SUNY work together with the DOE to ensure that high school students don’t inadvertently lose eligibility for in-state tuition through the timing of their graduation. In-state tuition for public colleges currently requires at least two years of enrollment in high school in New York City or New York State, but we have seen that some students who arrive to our school system in the middle of a school year are missing this cutoff by two months or less and so are never able to qualify. Possible resolutions could be extending enrollment in high school for long enough to both qualify for in-state status and to develop deeper skills in English, academics or career pathways (including early college programs). The only current route for these students is to pass the GED while in high school so that they automatically qualify for the benefits of the in-state DREAM act. Given that residency eligibility for many other public programs in the state is one year, we believe our young people should be given more flexibility around their opportunity to move forward with their public education through enrolling in our public colleges and universities. 

We agree with the governor that it is crucial that we increase equity in educational opportunity for all students and retain the best and brightest within New York State and its higher education institutions, ultimately creating an even more skilled workforce in the state. With the implementation of the suggestions we have made above, we believe this is a promising expansion of current efforts to keep our highest-achieving students in our public education system and to ensure that all of New York’s young people have the opportunity to succeed.