This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
What is LaGuardia?
1) An airport; 2) A famous New York City mayor; 3) The greatest engine of aspiration in the city.
You have probably passed No. 3 hundreds of times on your way to the airport of the same name, but likely never knew that a full block in the immigrant heart of western Queens holds LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York.
Day and night, all weekend, winter and summer, LaGuardia’s 20,000 degree-pursuing students rush in and out of its doors hungrily cramming the education that most of their parents missed.
On Thursday, more than 1,500 will graduate with associate’s degrees, many on their way to earn bachelor’s degrees elsewhere.
More than 57% of LaGuardia students come from families with incomes of less than $25,000 a year. Mainly immigrants and minorities, they are among the diminishing number of our young people who still believe in the American Dream and capitalism. And they are often willing to work two or three jobs to support children they’ve already had and parents they help to survive for the chance to earn their ticket to a middle-class life.
Jade Griffith is an African-American woman, already 26, whose adolescence in New Orleans was torn up by Hurricane Katrina. Her whole family was designated as “refugees” and sent to Texas.
“My mom was always push, push, push,” she told me. “I wish I would’ve listened and never moved out of my parents’ until I had it, like, all together. I wanted to be married first, but I just wasn’t thinking,” she admits. “I got pregnant at 24. Next thing I’ll be 30, and you should know what you want to do by 30.”
Her boyfriend, Shomari, put his dream as a rapper on hold and moved with Griffith to New York so she could apply to LaGuardia. She was accepted two years ago. Shomari has been working a full-time job at a manufacturing warehouse where, if he stays on, the company will pay for his college.
But crises challenge LaGuardia students every step of the way. The couple and their infant son were evicted from their basement apartment. That means, as Griffith is about to earn her degree, the family will spend another suffocating summer in a homeless shelter — a single room with a bunk bed and a crib. She has two final classes to complete this summer.
But her academic record is so impressive, she got the word she’s been praying for. She will walk with her graduating class on Thursday at Barclays Center.
Griffith reflected on how LaGuardia has helped her to mature: “We are a family, together. And soon, I’ll have a degree.”
In this graduation season, those of us lucky enough to have graduated from places like Columbia University or New York University feel our hearts swell with pride and nostalgia. We write out a check and send it off to schools sitting on endowments that boggle the mind: Columbia’s was $9 billion in 2016. NYU boasts of a mere $3.5 billion.
Even though LaGuardia’s tuition is low for New York State residents, students still have to pay for rent, MetroCards, food and other living expenses. The college reports that 68% of its graduates subsequently attended four-year colleges, far more than the national 51% average for those who complete community college.
But here’s the killer: degree delay. It takes too many students up to six years to earn their two-year associate’s degree. What holds them back? Housing insecurity; domestic violence; illnesses like ulcers and depression, and fragile child-care arrangements.
As the gulf of income disparity has swallowed much of the middle class, concern has focused on creating greater economic diversity at elite colleges. But the truth is, the vast number of high school students do not have a prayer of gaining admission to Columbia or NYU or any other elite American university. It is community colleges that accept 7.7 million students annually and represent 45% of all the undergraduates in the country.
Yet these same colleges are the only sector in higher education where, over the past five years, revenues per student have declined.
“Community colleges are separate but unequal,” laments LaGuardia’s dedicated president, Gail Mellow, herself a product of a community college that gave her the foothold to earn a doctorate.
LaGuardia should be a source of great pride among the pantheon of public colleges in the CUNY system. Yet it has a paltry endowment of $4 million.
What if most of the 20,000 were able to graduate in two or three years and go on to four-year schools? Wouldn’t that make an incredible difference in the workforce and economy of New York City? What if the heavy hitters out there set aside 5% of what they contribute to their beloved alma maters and sent it instead to LaGuardia?