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NEWS from the Office of the New York State Comptroller
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DiNapoli: CUNY Students Need Better Access to Required Courses to Help Improve Graduation Rates

September 1, 2020

Limited course offerings and lack of access to advisors may be keeping students at the City University of New York (CUNY) from graduating within four years, according to an audit released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

“Students who are unable to register for or complete courses needed for their majors may take longer to graduate, costing them time and exhausting their financial resources,” DiNapoli said. “CUNY has historically offered an educational path to many who otherwise couldn’t attend college, but limited options may make it harder to graduate or force some out of school. I am encouraged that CUNY is acting on our recommendations to make earning a degree more attainable. While COVID-19 poses new challenges, I am hopeful that CUNY will strive to follow up on their improvement plans.”

CUNY, founded by the state Legislature in 1961, is the nation’s largest urban public university system and includes colleges located throughout New York City. The Legislature intended that CUNY be “responsive to the needs of its urban setting” and “maintain and expand its commitment to academic excellence and to the provision of equal access and opportunity” for all students. As of fall 2019, approximately 162,000 full-time undergraduate degree-seeking students were enrolled in the university.

Only 30 percent of full-time bachelor degree-seeking CUNY students who enrolled in 2015 (the most recent entering class with published four-year graduation rates) received their bachelor’s degree within four years, according to CUNY data. Of full-time students who first enrolled in 2013, only 53 percent had graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years. By comparison, the State University of New York’s most recently published graduation rates for full-time freshmen (first enrolled in 2011) showed that 53 percent graduated in four years and 68 percent in six years.

Generally, students are eligible to receive eight semesters (four years) of New York State financial aid to help pay tuition costs. The audit determined that students who cannot register for required courses may face extra semesters of study. These students may then exhaust their financial aid, which, combined with the tuition and related costs of the additional terms, could put them at risk of not graduating.

DiNapoli’s auditors looked at the five senior colleges with the largest enrollment, one in each borough, as of the fall 2017 semester: the College of Staten Island, Lehman College, Hunter College, New York City College of Technology and Queens College.

While CUNY officials attribute low graduation rates to socioeconomic factors that are outside their control, such as outside employment and academic readiness, a 2018 CUNY Student Experience Survey found that 5,067 of 14,479 respondents (35 percent) indicated they were unable to register for one or more desired (required or elective) courses.

Following up on that survey, auditors emailed 5,000 randomly selected students from the five senior colleges in August 2019. The results indicate that many students were unable to register for required courses. The survey found:

  • 252 of the 678 students that responded (37 percent) complained that they could not register for a desired course;
  • Significantly, 139 of those 252 students (55 percent) indicated they were unable to register for a course that was required for their major; and
  • 103 of those 252 students (41 percent) indicated they had these problems for three or more terms.

Auditors determined that CUNY’s central office has not established university-wide policies and procedures to address the scheduling of courses and there is no system-wide policy specifying when additional course sections should be added. Instead, decisions of course offerings each semester are left to departments at each college.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, auditors interviewed 25 department officials at the five colleges and were told that course schedules are established using enrollment data from prior semesters. In addition, 13 of 25 officials said they do not offer online or hybrid courses (courses encompassing both classroom and online formats) because they believed such courses were unnecessary.

Students also told auditors there is inadequate communication with department advisors. The audit found that some departments appeared to not have enough advisors to serve students pursuing particular fields of study. Several students indicated they would like to talk to an advisor during registration but, based on the number of advisors for their department, this would result in long waits, even with an appointment.

Students who are not properly advised may be registering for courses they do not need to graduate or failing to enroll in enough courses each term to graduate within four years. This can cause students to pay for additional terms of tuition, as well as related costs, and exhaust financial aid.

DiNapoli’s auditors recommended CUNY:

  • Ensure that CUNY students have opportunities to register for elective courses and courses required for their programs of study;
  • Explore offering more online, hybrid, weekend, and off-hour courses to address student needs;
  • Improve communication between students and department advisors and ensure advisors’ hours are varied enough to meet student needs;
  • Improve advisor training to keep them up to date on degree requirements; and
  • Track students’ progress toward graduation and their financial aid eligibility.

CUNY officials agreed with the recommendations and indicated they are addressing the issues discussed in the audit. Their full comments are included in the report.

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