Op-Ed | American dreams begin in community colleges

CUNY Familia – Lina C-4 JUNE PHOTO 2021

It’s no secret that the City University of New York’s seven community colleges plays an invaluable role in making the American Dream a reality for many New Yorkers, including immigrants who are the first in their family to go to college. Our students never cease to impress. 

Just recently, three CUNY community college students received prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarships, given annually to top community college students in the U.S., which provide up to $40,000 per year so students can complete their bachelor’s degree.

 What’s more, 13 CUNY community college students recently accounted for the entire cohort of this year’s Kaplan Leadership Program, which helps high-performing, low-income students from the New York metropolitan area complete their associate degree, transfer to a four-year degree program, and provide them with much-needed financial support.

 These are just a few examples of what our community college students can accomplish. As the former President of Hostos Community College, I know from personal experience the vital role such colleges play in the lives of students.

 Thankfully, so does the Biden Administration. Our First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, is a lifelong educator, who has spent nearly three decades teaching at community colleges. President Biden himself is the recipient of a public college education, while Vice President Kamala Harris is a proud alumna of a historically Black university. This administration understands the value of a college education.

 That’s why President Biden’s American Families Plan is so important. Under the president’s plan, community colleges would be free for anyone who wants to attend — including Dreamers — giving students a financial lifeline to make their educational goals possible.

His plan would also expand the maximum Pell Grant award and aid many more students enrolled in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions — including many in the CUNY system, signaling his commitment to making higher education more accessible for Americans of every background, regardless of their family’s financial circumstances or immigration status.

That’s good news for CUNY, particularly for students like Lina Cruz, who I met when I was president of Hostos. Years ago, Lina left Colombia to attend Hostos in the Bronx to study English. Although she never intended to stay in New York, she quickly found a home at CUNY. “After enrolling in classes I realized my future was here,” she says. “CUNY became mi familia.” She recently recorded a video sharing her story

Lina went on to graduate from Hostos with her associate’s before earning a bachelor’s at Baruch, where she is now finishing her Master’s Degree. She’s earned three CUNY degrees — yes, three — in 12 years. 

While at Hostos she interned with the New York Yankees in a program I helped create. Lina turned that internship into a career. She now works as a team manager, leading their multicultural and Spanish-language outreach efforts, and supporting a variety of initiatives, such as a new mentoring program between the Yankees and CUNY students.

For Lina, attending a CUNY community college was a game changer. And she’s not alone: Tens of thousands of our students begin their educational journey at a community college, later continuing on to one of CUNY’s 11 four-year colleges. At community colleges, CUNY has pioneered initiatives like ASAP, a nationally recognized student success program that has more than doubled timely associate degree graduation rates for participating students.

President Biden’s American Families Plan would be a boost to our community colleges, ensuring that CUNY can help more students like Lina, preparing them with the necessary skills to thrive in a dynamic, post-pandemic economy. It would also help make higher education accessible to all Americans, no matter their financial situation, immigration status or zip code.

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.