Each Fall, we welcome a new class of students who come to Cayuga Community College with a broad range of backgrounds and academic goals. Some want to take a course or two for personal enrichment or to gain knowledge for their current careers. Others plan to earn their degrees and enter the workforce, and still others come to Cayuga with the goal of transferring to four-year institutions.
A survey of the incoming 2,911 students registered thus far this Fall indicates that 1,411 or nearly one-half have not yet set academic goals. Only 1,283 students or 44 percent indicated that they actually plan to complete their degree programs. Of those who do, 586 want to seek employment rather than transfer to four-year institutions, and the remaining 697 plan to transfer to four-year colleges for further education.
Like our peers across the country, one of the biggest challenges we face is helping our students commit to and complete their degree or certificate programs. Nationally, less than one-half of students entering community colleges for degrees and certificates actually do graduate within six years. Through several College initiatives and committees, we are reaching out to our students who indicate that they are unsure of their goals so we can help them to create plans and work toward degree completion. We want to learn more about students who indicate that they intend to transfer to four-year institutions before completing their associate degrees. We see opportunity to help them achieve the goal of earning their degrees before leaving Cayuga. So, the question is why degree completion is so important?
Studies indicate that students who complete associate degrees earn more income than those who do not. According to our 2009 socio-economic impact study, the average income of the typical Cayuga graduate at mid-career is $36,900 or 38 percent more than that of a high school graduate. Over the course of a lifetime, Cayuga graduates earn $14,100 more per year than high school graduates, or a career total approaching $500,000. This translates into $7.20 in return for every dollar students invest in their Cayuga education. Our impact study reported that of the expected 27,800 new and replacement jobs available by 2019 in our service area, 22 percent will require associate degrees or higher. This is consistent with national projections.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects between 2010 and 2020 that occupations requiring master degrees are expected to grow the fastest, about 22 percent, with careers requiring associate degrees growing at 18 percent. In contrast, jobs needing high school diplomas are expected to grow by 12 percent. Studies by the U.S. Department of Education show that students who earn associate degrees are accepted more readily into and are more likely to graduate from four-year institutions than students who complete a semester or two of college but did not earn their degrees before transferring.
Nationally, community colleges educate almost one-half of all undergraduates. In the State University of New York, we enroll about 55 percent of all undergraduate students. We educate higher proportions of minority, low-income, and adult learners – groups that experts indicate will make up the bulk of our future workforce. In 2009, President Barack Obama said, “America cannot lead in the 21st century unless we have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world.” He laid out his vision of increasing college graduation rates to 60 percent by 2020, and helping the nation rise up from its 12th-place ranking of countries with the highest graduation rates in the world.
Leaders of the Association of Community College Trustees, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the Center for Community College Student Engagement, the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, and the Phi Theta Kappa national honor society are joining together nationally to move forward the degree completion agenda. In New York, the community college presidents are sponsoring “New York Completion Day: Commit, Complete, Compete” on Wednesday, October 3. This Statewide initiative involves all 37 SUNY and CUNY community colleges, with a single-day focus on activities encouraging students to complete their degree or credential programs.
We know that comprehensive change will not result from a single day, or even a single year. The Cayuga community – and at colleges and entities from the White House to community organizations across the nation – recognize the importance of helping our citizens attend and earn college degrees. We are examining and strengthening our instructional programs, student engagement opportunities, faculty professional development activities, student support services, technology infrastructure, and communications efforts to support this completion initiative. Through a multi-level, coordinated
approach, we are creating a culture to support completion and are raising awareness about the significance of earning college degrees.
Dr. Daniel P. Larson is the President of Cayuga Community College, with campuses in Auburn and Fulton, N.Y.