New analysis finds differing pathways to earning a degree drive inequitable outcomes in New York State’s higher education system

by | Dec 2, 2021 | Press Release

 NEW YORK – A new analysis by the REACH NY network of civil rights, student-serving, veteran, and education organizations found that differing pathways to earning a degree drive inequitable outcomes in New York State’s higher education system. 

A college degree not only increases graduates’ opportunities for economic mobility, it can also put them on a path toward financial security and earning a family-sustaining wage. Yet, across New York State college students find themselves on a number of different “pathways” through college, with some far more likely to ultimately lead to a degree than others.  

A student’s pathway toward their first college degree (Associate’s or Bachelor’s) is marked by key “events” that represent important steps and transitions on a student’s journey. While every student is different and therefore makes their own unique decisions throughout their education, there are common “events” that students may experience, including transfers and  stop outs.  

Among the findings of the analysis:   

  • Finding 1: The most common pathway for students starting in Fall 2012 or Spring 2013, regardless of outcomes, is stopping out at least once without transferring. However, the most common pathway leading to graduation is continuous persistence.   
  • Finding 2: Students are most likely to complete their degrees at the same type of institution as the institution where they began their education. The data reveal a high number of students earning degrees started and ended at the same type of institution. Both CUNY and SUNY 4-year institutions have high retention rates, ensuring that the students that start within these schools end up at the same 4-year institutions. However, the completion rates are lower when students start at a CUNY or SUNY 2-Year institution. This reveals that while public institutions are doing well in supporting their current students, there are opportunities to strengthen the transfer pathway between institutions.  

Now more than ever, economic opportunity and financial security are intertwined with degree attainment. These findings highlight the need to strengthen supports around critical inflection points in a student’s higher education pathway. 

In order to ensure students are on the pathway toward graduation, institutions should focus on the following:  

  • Establishing policies that help students achieve seamless transfers between institutions;  
  • Improving access to academic and non-academic advising and support that is culturally-responsive and trauma-informed; 
  • Building upon re-entry supports so that students who are taking a break from their education will be able to pick up where they left off, without missing a step on their pathway toward a degree;  
  • Ensuring that students can readily access resources to help them meet basic needs such as food, housing, and tuition to improve retention rates;  
  • Redesigning courses and creating academic paths that are more likely to lead to meaningful careers that pay a living wage;  
  • Identifying and scaling programs that aim to improve completion rates for transfer students such as the CUNY Academic Momentum Campaign 2.0, a systemwide commitment to increasing transfer completion rates across New York City;  

New York faces two related challenges: our overall level of college attainment is not keeping up with the needs of our economy, and systemic attainment barriers prevent historically underserved groups of New Yorkers — those who are from low-income backgrounds, communities of color, and others — from earning a college degree or high-quality, industry-recognized workforce credential.  

“Setting an ambitious attainment goal is just the first step to putting all New Yorkers on the path to earning a family-sustaining income and meeting their full potential. Institutions must also invest in supports and resources that will support all students on their chosen pathway to earning a degree,” said Dia Bryant, executive director of The Education Trust–New York. “Differences in students’ pathways should never create barriers that ultimately put too many at risk for not completing their credential. And now more than ever, economic opportunity and financial security are connected with degree attainment.”  

“Well-designed and clearly communicated higher education pathways — supported by adequate human and technical resources — will increase student postsecondary interest and contribute to higher levels of college persistence and achievement,” said Kurt M. Thiede, manager of the New York State Association for College Admissions Counseling’s Student Success Project. The result will be a workforce that is better prepared to take on the opportunities of the 21st century.” 

“REACH NY’s recent findings on the impact of taking different pathways through college align strongly with what #DegreesNYC is learning and we wholeheartedly support the report’s recommendations,” said Judy Lorimer, director of #DegreesNYC. Only one pathway is very successful at ushering a large number of students to and through college: the traditional path in which students go straight from high school to a four-year college and persist for four years to earn a degree. That’s because this pathway is undergirded by the enormous number of supports  from preschool through graduation  built into our education systems. Other valuable pathways— like starting at a two-year college and transferring to a four-year institution  are not well supported. They need to be. We need to fix our systems so that they meet the needs and circumstances of all of our young people. We should NOT be trying to “fix” our young people so that they fit, like pegs, into the holes society has created for them.” 

Read the full report at