The biggest obstacle New York City universities face isn’t just getting more students in the STEM fields and onto other technology paths.

It’s getting more students ready to start college in the first place.

That preparation doesn’t start when students leave their high schools. It begins much earlier, and higher education needs to get involved with teaching well before freshman year begins. Instead, it’s a matter of molding students during the formative years with programs such as universal pre-k, which will help New Yorkers climb the opportunity ladder and get better jobs.

“The biggest core issue in an institution that educates so many New Yorkers, is ensuring from this pipeline, we have a way to take advantage of it, from birth to whatever point they emerge into the workforce,” said James Milliken, chancellor of the City University of New York system, during a New York City higher education panel at Crain’s The Future of New York City Conference on Thursday.

“But how do we address that issue of college readiness so we don’t lose people out of this incredibly important pipeline?”

More than 53,200 city children enrolled in the city’s UPK program this fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week – a figure that exceeds the mayor’s target enrollment goal by more than 200 seats. Full-day pre-kindergarten is a signature initiative of the new administration, and the expansion is state funded at $300 million for the year.

Next, Milliken said is early childhood development programs and resources for students in middle or high school.

“This is not a solution where we’re going to intervene at one point in time,” Milliken said. “We need a system throughout the educational process that keeps people on-track to move to the next level.”

CUNY currently enrolls nearly 500,000 students, half of which are degree-seeking students and half of which are continuing adult learners. Nearly 75 percent of CUNY freshmen come New York City schools, public or private, and 80 percent of the system’s graduates stay in the metro area.

CUNY also produces the majority of New York City public school teachers, funneling its students back into the system.

At Cooper Union, a privately funded college in the East Village, a majority of the students come from the New York City metro area. The college is developing free online advanced placement courses for lower-income high school students in the area who might not have access to resources their wealthier counterparts have.

“We have to find a way to tap into the unbounded talent of kids who didn’t grow up in families where they would have learned at the dinner table,” said Jamshed Bharucha, president of Cooper Union. “We as universities need to also look back, to help, the K-12 system do a better job.”

He added that CU has always been committed to the city, and its graduates have built much of the city’s infrastructure.

Higher education, and education as a whole, is still a work in progress in New York City. More needs to be done to make the city population flourish again.

“We look just like New York,” Milliken said.

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