Figuratively, SUNY New Paltz has moved a few miles further south from where it used to be. Though it’s now closer to New York City than it was a generation ago, the view from SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian’s office on the ninth floor of the Haggerty Administration Building has remained unchanged. Last Thursday afternoon, the orderly arrangement of the campus still lay below, and the western afternoon sunlight on the Shawangunk Ridge still did justice to the moody cloud formations above.
Act now, counsels the I Ching. A clear road lies ahead. In the spring, seeds that have been lying dormant are ready to bloom. Act now, for at some point this ripe opportunity for advancement will be challenged.
A December 15 press release from the U.S. Census announces that for the first time in history 90 percent of the American population age 25 or over have completed high school. From 2000 to 2017, the proportion of people age 25 and over who have not completed high school fell from 16 percent to ten percent. Out of the 217 million people in the United States 25 and older, 194 million now have a high-school diploma or higher.
The rate of attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher increased nationally from 26 percent in 2000 to approximately 34 percent in 2017, the same release said. The number of master’s degree holders had doubled to 21 million, and the number of doctoral degree holders has doubled to four million.
The rate of Asians 25 years or older with at least a bachelor’s degree was 55 percent. For non-Hispanic whites, the equivalent rate was 38 percent, for blacks 24 percent, and for Hispanics of any race 17 percent. If our society is to use its human resources effectively, those different rates of success should not be ignored.
SUNY New Paltz gets the job done. Its statistics show a graduation rate consistently higher than national patterns, both overall and for students of different racial backgrounds and economic status. The overall New Paltz graduation rate for first-year students was 72 percent. For Asian students it was 79 percent, for whites 74 percent, for blacks 70 percent and for Hispanics 69 percent. Some 73 percent of students with Pell grants to help with their financial needs and first-generation college students graduated in six years.
The graduation rate among underrepresented minorities has been gradually increasing at New Paltz and at other SUNY degree-granting colleges. The data shows a similar improvement in minority graduation rates at other SUNY colleges over the past decade.
New York City’s economy and culture are the Big Apple’s main attractants. Most of the 700,000 new jobs added in the past ten years have not gone to New York City’s residents. “When New York City itself doesn’t educate its own workforce, the city pulls people in from other places who were properly educated,” explained economic development expert Seth Pinsky at a forum in September organized by a think tank, the Center for an Urban Future. New York City’s economy could succeed even with a poor education system, Pinsky said. Too few New Yorkers had the skills or educational credentials to get many of the good-paying jobs being created.
Despite programs seeking to boost college success, the New York City educational pipeline is still struggling. New York City’s high-school graduation rate lags far behind the nation’s, hitting its all-time high of 76 percent in 2016. In the knowledge economy, education is all-important. Citywide, the average working adult with a high-school diploma makes $27,259 a year as compared to $36,101 for those with an associate’s degree and $54,939 for those with a bachelor’s degree.
Whatever the reason, New York City is not getting the job done. Graduation rates at the New York City public community colleges average only 22 percent. The influx of educated outsiders notwithstanding, the share of New York City residents with a college degree lags behind that of many other major U.S. cities.
More than half of SUNY New Paltz’s first-year undergraduates are from New York City and its inner core of suburbs. Are they likely as college graduates to go back to New York City? It’s only common sense to think that most of them do. The college’s Office of Institutional Research is currently running a survey of students who graduated last year to find out what they are doing now. The survey will close in mid-January, and SUNY New Paltz should have some results by the end of January.
New York City government recently launched an effort to create 100,000 good middle-class jobs (those paying at least $50,000 a year) for city residents in the next ten years. Education and workforce training at every level have to be the core of the city’s human capital development strategy. And only dramatic improvement in the city’s college completion rate will lift its residents into the middle class. Twenty of the 25 fastest-growing occupations in New York City require a college degree.
As the attentive reader may already have surmised, it is not Ulster County that has physically migrated in the direction of downstate but its workers. In 2015, almost a quarter of Ulster County residents commuted 50 miles or more from home to primary job. Significantly, by far the largest proportion of those who commuted that distance (17,029 out of 69,306 residents) did so southward, toward the Big Apple.
There is some as-yet not statistically significant evidence that the frequency of long-distance commuting from Ulster County may have reached its peak around 2010. Further data will indicate whether a new trend is emerging. If it is, is it because of new technology, generational change, an improving local economy, the arrival of new clusters of knowledge or new ways of organizing existing clusters, or a combination of all these and other factors?
Even before it started moving southward, SUNY New Paltz’s “location in the scenic Hudson Valley midway between the state capital of Albany and metropolitan New York City” provided the college, as its mission statement proclaims, unique opportunities for enriching its academic programs. President Christian said he has had frequent discussions of new ways of “capturing how we’re tied to the Hudson Valley” with philanthropies and various college stakeholders. How programs and priorities could connect more to the dynamic New York City environment is under discussion.
This college community faces a complex process. “Figuring out what we’re not going to be” is part of it, Christian said. Long-valued areas of content knowledge should not be easily surrendered, but resources must be made available for new content.
Act now. A clear road lies ahead. In the spring, seeds that have been lying dormant are ready to bloom.