An elite college in Midtown struggles to stand out



Macaulay Honors College on West 67th Street. Photo: Martin Rather.

Colleges around the country are now opening their admissions portals, holding open houses, and encouraging high school students to submit their applications as soon as possible. Macaulay Honors College, located in Midtown West, is one of these universities, as it holds its first admissions events of the cycle in mid-October.

Unique about Macaulay is its elite academic curriculum, despite a budget and campus space at just a fraction of its well-established peers. But maintaining rigorous academic standards hasn’t garnered the same attention and public praise that similar schools, like those in the Ivy League, have received. Macaulay struggles with name recognition by its own admission and lags behind other programs in ranking and fundraising.

Macaulay Honors College was established in 2001 to serve as the honors college of the City University of New York educational system. Macaulay enrolls approximately 2,000 of CUNY’s quarter-million students who are top performers — the types that otherwise might attend an Ivy League institution. Their average GPA is nearly identical to that of Cornell per data from PrepScholar, a site which tracks college admissions statistics, and Macaulay has had three Rhodes Scholars in just 17 years of existence.

“I’d put our students up against any in the Ivy League,” says Nathan Lents, the director of the Macaulay Honors program at John Jay College.

Both Cornell and Macaulay are beginning their full-scale admissions processes this month, but they are targeting different audiences. Macaulay’s students are nearly all from New York City, while three-quarters of Cornell’s student body comes from outside of New York State. Macaulay is highlighting its tuition-free model, which includes a laptop and a $7500 fund for each student who chooses to enroll. Cornell highlights its 150-year history to students from around the globe. It also has approximately 15,000 students and is largely privately funded, while Macaulay takes funds from the city and state as part of the CUNY system.

Dean Mary Pearl of Macaulay Honors believes a key factor that hampers Macaulay is name-recognition. “We aren’t known on the cocktail party circuit,” she says. The fundraising numbers demonstrate her concerns. Despite accepting students of similar academic potential, Cornell raised $742 million dollars in 2017 according to the Cornell Chronicle. Macaulay, according to Pearl, raised just $2.8 million. Despite this lack of fundraising, Macaulay still guarantees full scholarships to every student who is a resident of New York. This allows students like Catherine Tum, a sophomore at Macaulay, to attend.

Macaulay “might not be an Ivy, but I think it’s better,” says Tum. She adds, “some people I know got into Ivy league schools, but not into Macaulay.” Similarly, Brown, Dartmouth, and Columbia all did not have a Rhodes Scholar in 2018. Macaulay did with Thamara Jean, who graduated last May and starts her term at Oxford this fall. Jean is grateful for her time at Macaulay. “The practicality, uniqueness, and intensity of the courses definitely prepared me for the academic challenges I may face in the future.”

Students at Macaulay point to advising as one of the key differentiating factors from other colleges. Jonathan Peñuela, a Macaulay student from Queens, said how “dedicated and resourceful” his advisor was, helping him win a fellowship.

After graduation, Macaulay students are sought-after by employers. A recent job fair held in the basement of Macaulay’s campus had dozens of employers from companies such as Bloomberg, the tech company YipIt, and the accounting firm EisnerAmper. One of these employers, Michael Grohman of the white-shoe law firm Duane Morris, says his firm has hired over twenty Macaulay Honors students to either full-time or internship positions in the past decade. He cites their “incredible work ethic” and believes that they perform at “the highest levels” when compared to students from larger institutions. He also recognizes that the school is “a little under the radar…an underdog,” but that Macaulay has made progress against its larger peers.

However, students from those larger institutions and the reviewers who rank them are nonplussed. Cameron Koffman, a senior at Yale University who grew up in New York City, said “I’ve never heard of Macaulay” and that he did not consider applying there when viewing colleges as a high school senior. When this year’s US News and World Report rankings were released in mid-September, every Ivy League institution was ranked within the top 15. Macaulay Honors College did not make the list.

Dean Pearl said she has tried many different techniques to increase the school’s name recognition, including media outreach and advertising, such as placing ads on the New York City subway system. “We tried to advertise, but some advertising is the same as no advertising,” she said when asked about Macaulay’s current marketing plan. “We have exceptional students…that is what is most important to us.”