Leadership Wanted: Pushing for More College Attainment? Start in Public Housing

Public housing creates an opportunity to bring together resources to increase college attainment and success for some of New York City’s neediest students.

“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love. And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York,” Mayor de Blasio stated during his Inauguration Speech on January 1, 2014.

As I discussed in “The College Access Crisis Needs You, Mayor de Blasio,” part of the “new progressive direction” Mayor de Blasio envisions must include a radical transformation of how we prioritize and invest in college access pipeline opportunities to combat economic and social inequalities.

The City should bring together all of the housing-related agencies to develop a strategy that will initiate an aggressive plan to further integrate and leverage community partners and key stakeholders to close the college readiness gap among students living in NYC public housing. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), whose mission is to “increase opportunities for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers by providing safe, affordable housing and facilitating access to social and community services,” is an ideal place to start.

There are well over 600,000 New Yorkers served by conventional public housing with an average family income of under $25,000 and nearly 250,000 families on a waiting list. As alarming as this reality is, it very clearly identifies hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who would greatly benefit from a strategic shockwave of investments – both political and financial – to radically open up the opportunities pipeline, focusing on increasing college attainment.

Public housing developments are almost always located in communities that are low-income and high poverty, with a disproportionate concentration of minorities. They were intentionally built in these communities as a response of America’s Great Migration from 1915 to the 1970s, in which blacks migrated from the segregated south to the northern cities. Consequently, these cities never fully integrated and still remain economically and geographically segregated today. About 75 percent of public students who live in NYCHA housing are eligible for a free school lunch (an indicator to identify poverty) and more than 75 percent of these students are Black or Hispanic.

It’s no secret. A kid living in public housing performs worse than a kid who doesn’t. By a lot. Only 38 percent of NYCHA students passed their reading exams and just 41 percent passed their math exams. Among non-NYCHA students, nearly 50 percent of students passed their reading exams while nearly 52 percent of students passed their math exams. What’s more is that only about 55 percent of NYCHA students graduate from high school versus 61 percent of their non-NYCHA peers. This might help to explain why only 3 percent of CUNY freshman come from public housing and why those freshmen require more remedial course work than their non-public housing counterparts.

It is important to note that there is some work being done already. NYCHA offers a few scholarships for public housing students to pursue higher learning. NYCHA also partners with groups like the Educational Alliance. Unfortunately, these efforts are not only underfunded but often focus only on admissions related topics rather than actually preparing for and succeeding at college.

In addition to leveraging NYCHA and other housing-related agencies to reach New Yorkers in public housing, New York City has about forty other agencies serving more than eight million residents and employing about 300,000 public employees.

The city needs to use the public housing infrastructure to develop comprehensive college access centers that utilize and leverage existing projects, organizations, and networks such as the College Access Consortium of New York, GraduateNYC!, Bloomberg Philanthropies new initiative, the Partnership for Afterschool Education, and many others. This includes more than just test prep and admissions advising. A comprehensive college access center would provide full academic, financial, and social support preparing students and their family communities from 9th grade, supporting them while they earn their college degree, and coaching them through the beginning of their career. Integrated into NYCHA space, these centers would build a partnership made up of only the most proven and effective models that currently exist allowing us to see where innovation may be required for this much needed policy experiment to increase college attainment and fight inequality.

Similar to Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine,” which argues that leaders use crisis to push through policies, Mayor de Blasio should use the crisis of great economic disparity to fundamentally reimagine how New York City is tackling economic inequality through college access pipeline opportunities by using all of government and its tools, starting with public housing.