Larson: Community colleges can be crucial to health of the middle class
Dr. Daniel P. Larson is President of Cayuga Community College, with campuses in Auburn and Fulton, N.Y.
From their beginnings, community colleges in the United States have helped support the development of the middle class. Now, countries around the world, such as India, China and those in the Mideast, are looking at the American community college model to expand higher education opportunities for their students, to create a more employable workforce and to build a middle class. Cayuga Community College hosted a delegation of diplomats and educator this Spring from several Mideast countries interested in learning about alternatives in higher education and specifically about community colleges. They want to find a model to educate all their citizens, not just the wealthy. We found them to be engaged and open to the work we are doing here at Cayuga.
Our community college model is compelling as we provide high-quality education at an affordable price and accessible to all people. We provide a strong foundation in liberal arts to those wishing to pursue four-year degrees or higher, and we offer degree programs to prepare career-ready workers in fields such as nursing, telecommunications, information technology, mechanical technology, and criminal justice. At Cayuga, regardless of whether students are focused on career-technical training or on liberal arts, we promote academic excellence and challenge our students with rigorous coursework, hands-on projects, and opportunities to distinguish themselves inside and outside of the classroom.
At our 58th Commencement last May, we recognized 680 graduates, our largest class to date. Of those graduates, 39 percent graduated with honors. The breakdown was 16 percent “cum laude” (GPA of 3.25-3.49), 16 percent “magna cum laude” (GPA of 3.5-3.79), and the remaining 7 percent with the highest distinction “summa cum laude” (GPA of 3.8-4.0). Our Nursing program, one of our most challenging degree programs, last year achieved an historic 100 percent pass rate on the national licensure examination and a nearly perfect placement rate, and had 69 percent of its students graduate with honors this year. We expect that these graduates will do well on the national licensure examination in coming months.
Students in other academic areas have garnered recent national attention for their success. Six telecommunications students won the prestigious 2012 Telly Award for their sequel documentary about foods and dishes with origins in Upstate New York. The winning video, Please Pass the Salt Potatoes…Again!, was produced by students in C3Video Studios, the student-run video/film company that teaches media production and entrepreneurship skills in our media/telecommunications program. Five business students qualified to compete in the Phi Beta Lambda National Competition this Summer after successfully competing in the state individual and team competitions. At the competition in San Antonio, Texas, three of them placed in the top ten for their division.
These applied learning and extracurricular experiences help students gain deeper understanding of their curriculum and course projects. We seek ways to continue providing these exceptional opportunities, including through external funding sources such as the AmeriCorps program. Currently, we have 33 Cayuga students in settings across the region to provide community service in specific areas of study or interest – whether in ecology, healthcare, or early childhood education. In exchange for 300 hours of community service, these students receive $1,175 awards to help cover their education expenses, including tuition and books. The program fosters civic engagement among college students and encourages positive relationships between campuses and communities.
For 33 years, the College has offered the Honors program for transfer-bound students whose academic ability, motivation, and interest in intellectual challenges are superior. The program provides well-rounded education in liberal arts and offers opportunities to students for participation in innovative educational experiences and student-mentor relationships with distinguished faculty members. Graduates of this program transfer to prestigious four-year colleges and universities, and they report about how well Cayuga prepared them for their next educational challenges. One 2012 graduate who now attends a highly regarded New York four-year institution said she was as challenged intellectually – in terms of coursework, grading, and faculty interactions – at Cayuga as at the four-year institution she now attends. This is exactly what we mean by academic excellence.
We regularly receive similar feedback from alumni as well as from peers, partners, employers, and accrediting agencies that Cayuga stands out in front of its peers. Some students, like those in our mechanical technology program, often have jobs lined up before graduation, and those who transfer continue on to complete bachelor’s degrees at higher education institutions across New York State and the nation. We hope that our students not only enter their workplace with solid academic and career preparation but also have gained the thinking, problem-solving, and communications skills needed to help lead their organizations through future challenges. We believe that they constitute the re-emergence of a stronger, educated middle-class helping to advance the economic and social development America needs now.