by Sam Anderson
This past May, John Jay seniors gathered with their families in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens to celebrate the pinnacle of their academic career: graduation. With 3,690 students, it was the largest graduating class in John Jay College history. Given its proud status as a low-income and minority serving institution, graduating students in four years has become John Jay’s single most difficult challenge. For the majority of students, obstacles abound. While tuition may be low, the cost of textbooks, transportation, and tutoring has never been higher. Combined with the cost of food and housing in America’s most expensive city, the student who works two jobs and is still forced to drop out for semesters at a time to save enough money to return becomes less the exception, and more the rule.
Tandek graduated a full two years earlier than his cohort, most of whom are expected to graduate in 2019. Still, it is unlikely he would have been able to do so without the ACE program, which provides a free MetroCard, a textbook voucher, a tuition gap waiver, a personal academic advisor and career specialist, academic support services, and scholarships for winter and summer courses, among other perks.
“The difference is, I would probably be slacking in school and I wouldn’t be buying the textbooks I needed because who knows if I would have money,” Tandek said when asked what his trajectory might have looked like without ACE. Tandek mentioned that his twin brother attends private school to the tune of $32,000 per year and spends $200 on biology textbooks. “Everything saved on me went to my brother,” he said. “Another burden like that would add up, and I wouldn’t be graduating in two years, but four or five.”
Tandek was in Cadet Corps, and plans to attend the Police Academy, but not before obtaining a master’s degree in criminal justice and history. If a motivated student like Tandek can graduate in two years, what does that mean for the rest of the cohort?
According to DeLandra Hunter, the director of ACE programming, they are on track to meet their goal f graduating 50 percent of the initial cohort (262 students) in four years. “Because of the success thus far, we were able to receive additional funding for a new class before graduating the first class,” Hunter said.
In addition to the $4.5 million provided by the Robin Hood Foundation to kick-start the program, new funding from NYC Opportunity under the Mayor’s Office and a grant from the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women has left ACE with nearly $6 million, enough to support a new cohort of 350 students.
At the same time, one of the students in Arthur Ashe Stadium on that warm day in May was only 19 years old. His name is Piotr Tandek, and from start to finish he graduated in just two years. The difference between Tandek and his peers— aside from a superhuman work ethic—is the Accelerate,
Complete, Engage (ACE) program.
Modeled after CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative, which aims to double the graduation rates of students pursuing associate degrees, the ACE program sets out to do the same thing for bachelor’s degrees. As the first four-year college to implement the ACE program, all eyes are on John Jay to determine whether it’s viable, sustainable, and effective at increasing students’ graduation rates. If the answer to that question is yes, a wide rollout of the ACE program at CUNY colleges across the city is expected. And if the success of the first ACE graduate is any indication, the program seems to be working.
To be fair, Tandek’s case is a unique one. By taking winter and summer classes each year in addition to a full course load and some additional credits from high school AP classes, Funding remains one of the major obstacles to wider rollout of ACE. At $3,500 to $4,500 per student, per year, the program does not come cheap. But according to Hunter, “It’s an investment. Not only are we producing more graduates, but better prepared graduates.”
He added, “Students can come to John Jay and graduate, but with limited resources, they might not be as engaged in student organizations, they might not have done the internships, and they might not be as prepared for graduate school or a profession as ACE students.”
In addition to providing financial security to low-income students—the target demographic of the program—dedicated and personalized academic support is perhaps the most important ACE benefit.
“It’s important that I can walk into my advisor’s office whenever I want,” said Christian Carter-Stamps, a Criminology major and Sociology minor. “There have been times when I was stressed and he would just close the door and speak to me as an uncle or a father.”
During one of these meetings, Carter-Stamps was explaining how his grades were slipping in a particular class. The advisor told him he needed to talk to the professor, and walked him through the process. “I was able to sit down, in his [the advisor’s] office and make the call. I feel like that’s so unheard of because advisers have so many students, they don’t usually have time to do that,” he said.
Carter-Stamps, who’s on track to graduate in four years, recently finished a summer internship with the Ronald H. Brown pre-law program, which he learned about through ACE, and which gave him the opportunity to work at several different courthouses in Queens.
“My high school was under-funded so I could get by without studying,” he said, “so I got accustomed to slacking. But I’ve matured through the ACE program.”
Another ACE student, Anthropology major Leslie Roman, described her advisor as a “John Jay mom.” “She’s there whenever you need her,” she said.
Roman had a tough first semester and struggled to get C grades, leaving her feeling discouraged. But she was able to bring her GPA up to a 3.5 thanks in large part, she said, to the motivation of her advisor.
“You don’t know what people are going through,” said Roman. “You never know if a student lives by himself, if his parents aren’t in the picture, maybe he’s the only one taking care of younger siblings, or maybe she’s the only one that’s working. For that type of person, to be enrolled in the ACE
program is like a gift.”
Roman received scholarships to study abroad in Florence, Italy, and has since become an ACE student leader, helping incoming students get oriented and coordinating events for the program. And like Carter-Stamps, she’s on track to graduate in four years.
When it comes to expanding the program beyond John Jay, DeLandra Hunter thinks there’s reason to be optimistic. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. “We know why students don’t graduate. Financial hardship is one reason, and quality academic advising is another. So we’ve put a system in place to
address those reasons.” JM