Op-Ed | Community colleges hold keys to the city’s success

PHOTO – MARCH COLUMN – 3-2024 -Hostos_Community_College_Students

Adams Michel never envisioned himself going to college. But with encouragement from his family, he enrolled at Queensborough Community College, one of CUNY’s seven community colleges.

With the support of instructors and mentors at Queensborough and participation in two student-success initiatives, CUNY Start and ASAP, Adams earned his associate degree and continued on to Queens College. He’s now on track to graduate next year with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and he credits the formative experiences of community college with helping him thrive.

“There were so many support services with people who really cared and could help you, not only academically but with life stuff,” he says of his time at Queensborough. “I felt like they knew what I needed even more than I did.

“I fell in love with the process of pursuing an education,” he adds. 

Adams’ story illustrates the opportunities that more than 65,000 students — nearly one-third of CUNY’s undergraduates — are finding at CUNY’s community colleges. This includes many who are the first generation in their families to attend college as well as working adults and members of socioeconomically diverse groups that have been traditionally underserved in higher ed.

Hidden Gems

Community colleges have historically been an undervalued asset of higher education, and many have struggled to rebuild their enrollment since the pandemic. This year, snags with the federal government’s rollout of the revamped Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) have added to the challenges, prompting delays in the admissions calendar (CUNY extended the deadline to accept admissions offers).  

That’s why we’re making a special effort this spring to get the word out about CUNY’s nationally acclaimed community colleges and the wide range of possibilities they offer. April is National Community College Month, and we’ve already begun several weeks of in-person and virtual events including campus tours, information sessions, workshops on financial aid and credit transfer and panel conversations featuring our students.

It’s also a continuation of our ongoing campaign, in partnership with New York City Public Schools, to draw more graduating high school students to CUNY. Last fall, we sent personalized “Welcome to CUNY” letters to 65,000 seniors, offering admission to CUNY community colleges to every student who is on track to graduate this spring. 

What we’re offering is a value proposition that is an investment in New Yorkers as well as the city’s economic well-being. With half the funding for community colleges coming from the city and several city funding cuts that were imposed in recent months and years, that’s the strong case for sustained support we’re making to the City Council and Mayor Adams during this spring’s difficult budget season.

Affordability and Excellence

CUNY community colleges have the lowest tuition in the state — $4,800 a year for in-state students — and it gets even lower with financial aid and scholarships that allow more than three-quarters of our community college students to attend tuition-free. Our net price calculator shows prospective students and their families just how affordable it is.

Affordability is only one part of the picture. CUNY’s community colleges are routinely recognized among the best in the nation and regularly produce winners of prestigious national awards such as the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship. The colleges offer more than 160 associate degrees that move students toward new opportunities and careers after two years of full-time study. 

For many, the next step is transferring to a CUNY four-year college, a process that we’re committed to making easier with initiatives like a new tool, dubbed T-Rex and will make it seamless by the end of the year. 

CUNY’s flourishing workforce development programs are widening and accelerating the path from community college to careers. This month, Gov. Hochul announced a $2 million investment to expand our Apprenticeship Degree Program, which provides students in two-year Associate of Applied Sciences programs with paid apprenticeships with major companies. 

Also in March, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, led by philanthropist and New York Mets owner Alex Cohen, awarded a $116.2 million grant to LaGuardia Community College to create a workforce training center that will give thousands of New Yorkers improved access to career-focused degrees, credentials and preparation in high-demand fields. It is the largest gift ever to CUNY and to a community college in the United States. 

That’s a testament to the value of CUNY’s community colleges and the vital role they play in New York City’s future. 

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