May 16, 2012
By Samantha Saly
New Yorkers may recognize the Metropolitan College of New York name from advertisements in city subway cars alongside those for the college’s competition—for-profit institutions that prey on vulnerable populations. A non-profit, private college, MCNY’s mission is to provide a “purpose-centered education,” said MCNY President Vinton Thompson. “The correlation between lifetime earnings and the level of education people achieve is well-established. The differential in earning potential between people who have bachelors degrees and people who don’t has gotten larger, not smaller.”
MCNY began not as an educational institution but as a jobs training initiative before the Reagan administration brought an end to the societal commitment to antipoverty programs. At its advent, the college—then called the Women’s Talent Corps—used an income cap to determine who was eligible for enrollment, in order to ensure that the college served only impoverished Americans. In 2012, the college still relies in part on federal funding in order to operate. As the federal government continues to slash student loan provisions, Thompson said MCNY’s operation feels each cut.
In the wake of the economic recession, MCNY’s administration holds that an economically stable future for individuals begins with a college degree. “In this country, we’ve seen wage stagnation. Aside from the one percent, the only people who’ve gained ground are people with college degrees. People without college degrees have actually lost ground.”
The college uses a three-semester yearlong schedule, which allows students to complete in a calendar year the amount of work it would take a year-and-a-half to complete at a college with a standard two-semester schedule. Class meetings at nontraditional times, including weekend classes, are among the tactics MCNY uses to help students “get through faster.” And Thompson says that the administration’s unorthodox policies are working. “We are more successful at bringing students through to graduation than the CUNY system.”
The semester schedule is not the only area in which MCNY deviates from the higher education norm. The college’s student body is predominantly minority, adult, and female. The institution’s “historical mission has been to give access and opportunity to people underserved in higher education, to economically disadvantaged communities,” said Thompson. “At the institution’s beginning, the majority of its students were African American—and that’s still true.”
Today, the college remains committed to job training and preparation. The core of this effort, because MCNY’s students are overwhelmingly full-time employees, has been integrating students’ coursework into their jobs. The college is “not narrowly vocational but aimed to help job skills—to help students be more promotable or get better jobs at other organizations,” said Thompson. At MCNY, there is “not a big divide between work life and life in school. You don’t have this complete schizophrenia.”
While it is primarily an undergraduate college, a third of MCNY’s enrollment is at the Master’s level, with a plurality of students studying human services. “Our typical undergraduate student,” said Thompson. “Is working at a social services agency in a rank and file job and would like to get into a supervisory job. At the Master’s level, our students are typically in a low-level supervisory position and want to move into a managerial position.”
Despite the numerous ads in subway cars, Thompson says that most students at the college learn about it by word of mouth. “Adult students often feel time at their heels,” he said. But with a total of 1,200 students, Thompson emphasizes that MCNY is “not trying to be all things to all people.” Its students, said Thompson, are pursuing higher education in order to enhance their earning potential and quality of life.
When it comes to for-profit schools, Thompson acknowledges the competition but withholds judgment. “There is a lot of national controversy regarding proprietary schools. One of the defenses proprietary schools make is that they serve disadvantaged and underserved communities. We’re casting to the same population and hoping to offer them opportunities.” But he warns those who are considering going back to school to be “particularly wary given the bad behavior of certain institutions that offer services. If I were a student choosing a school, I would choose one operating on the basis of commitment to a mission and not one trying to generate the most profit.”
Thompson’s newest project for the MCNY administration has been developing an initiative around young adults coming out of foster care. As it stands, less than 10 percent of children raised in foster care graduate from college. But in order to get the initiative off the ground, MCNY will need the cooperation of the NYC Administration for Children’s Services as well as outside grant funding for counseling and support services for the youths.