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Career Pathways: A Strategy to Increase Black and Latino Four-Year Graduation Rates

by Robert Cherry & Emily Horowitz - April 05, 2013

This commentary highlights findings from a study recently completed comparing minority graduation rates of NYC-area Catholic colleges and public universities. The authors argue that the reason why the Catholic colleges are doing better than the CUNY schools is because of a difference in college cultures, and, in particular, an emphasis on career development. Their surveys and interviews provide evidence that the NYC-area Catholic colleges offer a model to schools wishing to improve graduation rates among minority and first-generation populations.

While the number of blacks and Latinos attaining four-year degrees has risen substantially in the last two decades, their graduation rates are still dramatically below the national average of 32 percent.   In 2011, 20 percent of blacks graduated college, and 12.8 percent of Latinos graduated, as compared to 39 percent of whites.

Nationally, many blacks and Latinos hope to move forward by disproportionately enrolling in the least competitive colleges; ones that offer occupational degrees, providing concrete career pathways in less demanding settings.   This paper will document this strategy with evidence from the New York City metropolitan area, focusing on two groups of colleges: private Catholic colleges and the City University of New York (CUNY) colleges.  Through the use of surveys of students and administrators, and evaluation of program requirements, we develop recommendations that will help public universities duplicate the best practices of private colleges.


Black and Latino college enrollment in the New York City metropolitan area follows the national pattern. At CUNY, Black and Latino students disproportionately graduate from the least competitive colleges. In 2006-07, the four least competitive – Lehman, York, Medgar Evers and City Tech – graduated 390 black men and 1029 black women.  By contrast, the three most competitive – Baruch, Queens, and Hunter – have more than double the number of graduates but only graduated 250 black men and 619 black women.   

Most troubling, three years later, while the total number of graduates from the most competitive CUNY colleges increased substantially, the number of male and female black graduates did not.   Although Latino enrollment at these colleges has remained fairly constant, the percent of first-time freshmen dropped from 17% in 2001 to 10% in 2011.

The private-sector black and Latino-serving colleges are also all among the least competitive colleges in the New York City area. They include Bloomfield College, Metropolitan College, Nyack College, the College of New Rochelle, St. Francis, St. Joseph’s, Mercy College and Monroe College.  Together, these colleges graduate more black students than even the least competitive CUNY schools.    


In order to better understand the contrast between the private and public colleges, we surveyed black and Latino students.  We expected that the Catholic schools would provide the best practices, given their long tradition of serving the underserved.  As a result, we surveyed students at the Brooklyn campuses of St. Francis and St. Joseph’s.  For comparison, we chose Brooklyn and Lehman colleges since they graduated the largest number of black and Latino students, respectively, of any CUNY four-year college.  Since we were interested in career pathways, we only surveyed students in sociology or business courses.

We were interested in factors related to career pathways: career services, academic programs, faculty mentoring, and academic assistance.  The most important barrier many students face is making up for academic skill deficiencies.  Among black students, 38.6 percent of those in the Catholic schools but only 13.7 percent of those in the CUNY schools rated their experience with academic assistance as “exceeding their expectations.”  Catholic school students also had a statistically significant more favorable experience with career services than their CUNY counterparts.  Across the four measures, Catholic school students had a statistically significant higher average rate of “exceeding their expectations” (26.6 percent) than CUNY students (18.8 percent).  


In the public sector, weakly-prepared students invariably begin their college careers in remediation courses in the community college system.  At CUNY, the overwhelming focus is on the transfer function.  As a result, all remediation is provided by generic stand-alone courses, usually taught by unenthusiastic research-oriented academicians.

By contrast, St. Francis makes special efforts to hire interested experienced teachers for the remedial math classes. Remediation is tailored to student needs based on their career pathways program and is often embedded in the required program courses or taught by learning center instructors who specialize in this area of teaching.  Additionally, at-risk students can get academic help in the summer at no cost.  St. Joseph’s provides academic support so that deficient students can immediately take the required introductory math and English courses for credit and, as an administrator explained, “they aren’t stigmatized for taking remedial classes.”  

Career Services is another area in which the CUNY system falls short.  It is not structured to employ full-time dedicated personnel to develop industry ties necessary for student placements.  It does not have counseling services that are embedded in career pathway programs.  These problems would not be as serious if faculty members had industry experience.  However, all CUNY faculty members must meet the traditional academic standards – Ph.Ds. and research publications – making it difficult to retain individuals who come from industry.

By contrast, the promotion and tenure reviews at the Catholic colleges value professional experience, teaching commitment, and engagement with the college community.  At St. Francis, two of the four formal areas of consideration for promotion are teaching effectiveness and “commitment to the college as an academic community.”  An administrator at St. Francis bluntly pointed out that “we respect teaching, and it means something here.”

While every college claims to serve all its students, there are always priorities.  For most CUNY colleges, the emphasis is on providing resources, including mentoring, to their best students so that as many as possible can go on to Ph.D. programs, medical and law schools, and can obtain prestigious fellowships.  In this environment, providing career pathways to fields where students can attain modest entry-level professional employment is more a chore, never a priority.  Thus, students who are not stellar performers obtain little mentoring or counseling from faculty members. In addition, the research focus enables the typical faculty member to be on campus no more than two days per week, leaving little time for counseling students.  By contrast, at the Catholic colleges we surveyed, faculty were expected to be on campus at least three days per week and are encouraged to work with the registrar’s office, financial aid, and to get involved with at-risk students.

Catholic colleges are aware that the best way to retain first-generation students is to have “more modest” academic and career goals, and guide students through career pathways programs. The increased personal attention is one reason why Catholic colleges do better than the CUNY schools. In addition, there is also a meaningful effort to promote a sense of community. Students that might “fall through the cracks,” said one Catholic college administrator, “are noticed because of the sense of community” found there.  He cited the cafeteria and common areas of his institution where student groups are racially integrated, and  “make friends and stay friends.”


The ability for the CUNY system to duplicate the best practices of the career pathway approach of the Catholic colleges is within reach.  The College and Community Fellowship (CCF) is a CUNY program that supports the college aspirations of female ex-offenders.  Since CCF is committed to steering students into the CUNY system, few of the students entering college for the first time enroll in the private sector.  It provides extensive counseling, direct communication with CUNY administrators to resolve student issues, $600 per semester stipends and coordination of support services (child care facilities) when needed.  

As a result of these efforts, CCF students in CUNY have graduation rates above 50 percent.  CFF students succeed, in part, because they are more mature and more committed than typical CUNY students.  However, crucial to their success are the counseling services CFF provides which compensate for the CUNY system’s deficiencies.

The CFF program and the experience at the Catholic schools studied verify the important role that counseling can play.  Unfortunately, the CUNY faculty is not expected to counsel students, as such efforts are not considered in tenure and promotion decisions.  Moreover, because CUNY faculty are all expected to meet traditional publishing standards, two-day teaching schedules are the norm in many departments, leaving little time for faculty-student interaction outside of the classroom.  The focus on traditional publication norms also makes it more difficult to recruit and retain faculty with industry experience.  In addition, CUNY schools have lagged in offering career employment and intern services because the funding of necessary personnel has not been seen as a priority.  This lack of funding contrasts with the substantial resources provided to students’ seeking admittance to law schools, medical schools, and doctorate programs.

The recognition that first-generation college students have different needs than students from more privileged backgrounds is a key reason why the Catholic colleges are more effective at retention than the CUNY schools. Smaller classes, intensive advisement, faculty presence, career pathways, a “sense of community,” and adapting promotion criteria for faculty members pre-professional fields all contribute to retention. Most importantly, if we want to increase graduation rates for vulnerable populations, we must reshape institutional goals so that they relate to realistic academic and career goals.        

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 05, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17082, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 4:16:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Cherry
    Brooklyn College
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT CHERRY is a professor in the Department of Economics at Brooklyn College.
  • Emily Horowitz
    St. Francis College
    E-mail Author
    EMILY HOROWITZ is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College.
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