By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - Thirty-five percent of community-college students who are full time graduate within six years, and the low graduation rate is hurting employment opportunities, a report said.
The completion rate at New York's 35 community colleges needs to be improved as enrollment increases and as the schools becoming an increasingly important job-training ground for young people, the report from the Center for an Urban Future said. The group makes the case for additional funding for community colleges.
"The basic reality that a majority of community college students in New York fail to graduate may seem like a mere data point," the report released Thursday by the New York City-based think tank said. "But for thousands of New Yorkers each year, failing to graduate with a post-secondary degree or professional certificate has real consequences."
Graduation rates varied for students entering community college in 2002 and receiving either an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree, the report found. The national average was 36 percent, according to a 2012 report from the National Student Clearinghouse.
Westchester County Community College had a 27 percent graduation rate, the second lowest outside New York City, the Urban Future report found.
The community colleges with the highest graduation rates were in Jefferson and Niagara counties, at 46 percent and 45 percent, respectively, followed by Finger Lakes in Canandaigua, Ontario County.
Broome Community College tied for seventh for the highest graduation rates within six years at 42 percent. Monroe Community College, which had the largest 2002 class outside of Long Island, also had a six-year graduation rate of 42 percent.
"Broome Community College is proud to have a graduation rate today that is substantially above the national average and above the SUNY average," said college president Kevin Drumm in an e-mail. "Nevertheless, we work hard every day toward even higher graduation rates for the future."
Community colleges said graduation rates aren't a fair indicator of success. Students often go part-time or transfer to four-year colleges without graduating with an associate's degree.
"We look at success in a variety of ways," said Westchester Community College spokesman Patrick Hennessey. "The graduation rate, we are working to improve that. But I think it needs to be put in perspective."
The community college has a diverse and growing enrollment, Hennessey said, with a record 1,854 graduates this year.
Michael McDonough, provost and vice president for academic services for Monroe Community College, said 71 percent of its 18,000 students transfer. While they leave MCC without receiving a degree, they often receive a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution.
The report said that of the 42,000 students who enrolled at community colleges statewide in 2002, 26 percent got a two-year associate's degree, 9 percent got a bachelor's degree and 5 percent were still enrolled. The remaining 60 percent dropped out or could not be tracked.
The report showed demographic differences in the graduates. At the five community colleges with the highest graduation rates, 38 percent of students were low-income and 19 percent were minorities. At the schools with the lowest graduation rates, 54 percent of enrollees were low-income and 80 percent were minorities.
Ulster County Community College had the fourth lowest graduation rate among those outside New York City at 33 percent. Sullivan County had the lowest outside the city at 23 percent.
SUNY officials said they are working to improve opportunities and graduation rates at community colleges, saying they are working with college and local leaders.
"SUNY agrees that improving the success rates for our community college students is critical to the future strength of New York's economy and the well-being of all New Yorkers," said SUNY spokesman David Doyle. "We are committed to ensuring that more students -- even those who need the most assistance -- have access to high-quality programs that produce real results."
Even an associate's degree was important for a person's employment, the report said. In 2011, a full-time worker in New York with an associate's degree earned $117 more per week than a person with only a high-school diploma.
An issue affecting completion at community colleges is readiness, college officials said. Thirty-seven percent of entering students at MCC are not ready for college-level coursework, McDonough said.
Those students take remedial classes, which are non-credit bearing courses that bridge educational gaps between high school and college. Some financial aid programs cover students' expenses for only a set period of time, college officials said. So students who have to take several remedial courses sometimes run out of financial aid before they finish their degrees and are not able to continue.
Some students just get frustrated and give up, McDonough said.
"Nobody walks through the door of college with the idea of failing," McDonough said. "Everybody wants to be successful. They do have aspirations. They want to be in programs, but their academic skill set doesn't let us place them in those programs. That's got to be incredibly disappointing."
MCC is working to raise more funds for scholarships to help students finish, he said. At Westchester, the school gave out more than $1 million in student scholarships this year through its growing foundation.
According to the report, "Completion Day," student enrollment at SUNY and CUNY community colleges increased 28 percent over the last decade and grew 13 percent at the state's four-year public colleges.
The report said state aid for community colleges after being adjusted for inflation declined by 29 percent over the past decade. Tuition and fees increased to account for 36 percent of SUNY and CUNY community college funding, up from 30 percent a decade ago.
This year's state budget increased aid for community colleges by 4.7 percent, up nearly $31 million to 648.1 million.
The study was part of a national look at community colleges and was funded by the Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative.
To read the report from the Center for an Urban Future, visit: http://nycfuture.org/pdf/Completion-Day.pdf
Includes reporting by Albany Bureau staff writer Jessica Bakeman.