THE BLOG
10/01/2014 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

What Will It Take to Be 'First in the World?'

President Obama has set a clear goal for our nation's education system: by 2020, the U.S. would once again be the world's leader in the proportion of its citizens holding college degrees or postsecondary credentials. He's urged college educators to be relentless in their effort to advance evidence-based innovations that can "move the needle," expanding access and success for our highest risk students.

To support this essential national goal, the Department of Education (ED) has outlined a comprehensive education agenda that includes expanding quality and opportunity at all levels of education from early learning programs through higher education. The ED's First in the World Program grants and awards, with an emphasis on low-income students, is a key part of this agenda. As announced yesterday, 24 colleges will receive a total of $75 million in funding to implement new approaches that can get college students in the door and out carrying a degree.

LaGuardia was selected to receive a $2.9 million First in the World grant from the Department of Education and it reflects our whole college's commitment to student success. The vision of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, and the Obama administration, got it right. They understand that by launching this competition, which will unearth smart ideas from across the nation, we can identify, implement and then evaluate approaches that can change how college's across the nation operate, helping more students graduate.

At LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), we serve a student body that is predominantly low-income, beautifully diverse and comprised of many first-generation college students. More than 70 percent of LaGuardia students have an annual family income under $25,000 and 63 percent of our students receive financial aid. While some well-recognized private colleges are able to graduate students from an incoming class that is essentially the "cream of the crop" in terms of the opportunities afforded to them on multiple levels, we help students who are challenged in myriad ways.

Our students struggle to get their academic work done while balancing heavy work and family responsibilities. They often come to us having to master English or have graduated from a high school that has not prepared them for college-level work. It is our mission, is in our very DNA, to open the doors of higher education to all and to graduate students so they have an opportunity to build a successful future for themselves and their families. For many of our students, graduating with a LaGuardia degree means they can enter the middle class.

With our funding LaGuardia will launch Project COMPLETA, Comprehensive Support for Student Success, which will advance three interlocking core activities to help low-income and under-represented college students succeed. COMPLETA will strengthen academic and co-curricular engagement from the moment of admission through the first college year and beyond, creating a comprehensive support and assessment structure to speed students to graduation. LaGuardia's emphasis on comprehensive effort is underscored by the project's name. In Spanish, por completa means to make whole, to go all out, to make perfect. The three components of our program include:

1. Back on Track - Roughly one third of LaGuardia's matriculating students first come to campus when they take non-credit classes, including out-of-school youth and adults working towards high school equivalency (HSE) diplomas. By strengthening pre-enrollment support, holding specialized skills workshops, and providing advisement to every HSE student, we will increase the percentage of HSE students who matriculate.

2. Rethink the Student's First Year - Nationwide, the transition to college is challenging for first generation, low-income and minority students. To address this problem, LaGuardia will build a new, credit-bearing First Year Seminar that will integrate an introduction to key concepts and careers in each major with intensive advisement, co-curricular engagement, peer mentoring, and an introduction to LaGuardia's technology suite, giving our 20,000 students the tools to more successfully persist in college.

3. Transform Advisement for All Students: Pro-active advisement can make a powerful difference for low-income urban students, and a faculty advising system can be an important ingredient in the retention process. To address this problem and sustain the momentum toward graduation created by the First Year Seminar, LaGuardia will activate a comprehensive and shared model of advisement, consisting of teams of faculty, staff, and peer mentors and empowered with new digital systems to help guide students more effectively to succeed.

On September 30, U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell formally presented the grant to LaGuardia during a daylong Innovation in Higher Education meeting at the College. The Under Secretary met with CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken, CUNY officials, and joined in an open discussion with a number of LaGuardia students, faculty, staff and community business leaders. It was beyond exciting: the room was electrified with the potential this grant will unleash for our students.

With these monies and the ideas generated imagine what we can do: helping students prepare before they start college, supporting their efforts while they are here and helping them make educational and career decisions as they leave us for four year colleges and the workforce.

This is what Project COMPLETA will allow us to do. As educators we find the possibilities breathtaking. And as a nation, it is these types of initiatives that will again restore America's preeminent position as the most education nation in the world.