Op-Ed | CUNY Goes on Offense to Counter Pandemic Setbacks

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By Félix V. Matos Rodríguez

It has been an extraordinarily difficult year for New Yorkers, including the 270,000 students enrolled every year in the City University of New York. In the last 12 months, our students have weathered a global pandemic, suffered the loss of loved ones and withstood economic hardships, all while transitioning to remote learning — a daunting and at times overwhelming experience, especially for students juggling multiple responsibilities — as they tried to hold onto their academic dreams.

Despite their perseverance — the University awarded 56,527 diplomas last year, the second-highest total in our history — our current students, and high school seniors who will soon be CUNY students, will need additional support to succeed after this once-in-a-lifetime experience and nearly a year and half of distance learning. CUNY has been building on existing and new student-support programs and partnerships to help students navigate a classroom experience that has been upended by the pandemic.

CUNY students who participated in focus groups after the Spring 2020 semester described how the change in their learning environments from campus to home impacted their focus and motivation, making it difficult for them to be as productive at home as they were on campus. The feedback, obtained in partnership with independent non-profit research group Ithaka S+R, suggested colleges could improve remote learning for students by  —  among other steps  —  making a concerted push to increase professional development for faculty in online instruction. In response, CUNY’s School of Professional Studies created an award-winning series of workshops in online instruction that drew 3,400 faculty members.

Other existing support programs were quickly adjusted to a distance-learning environment. One of those, CUNY Edge, targets students who receive public benefits. Supports such as virtual “walk-in hours” provide a platform for students to ask questions and request assistance without having to wait for an appointment. It’s also a way of building community for our students in a time of increasing social isolation. CUNY ASAP and ACE, programs that provide wraparound support to ensure timely graduation, maintained their engagement with nearly 100 percent of students via Zoom, email and telephone, sustaining the high contact rates of semesters when students were on campus. Similarly, we have intensified our campaign to provide students with step-by-step virtual support as they file for financial aid. And the payoff is clear: the number of CUNY students submitting a FAFSA application is on the rise, bucking the national trend. 

We also redoubled efforts to make sure students graduating from city public schools continue on to college. We expanded the reach of CUNY Tutor Corps, a successful program in which CUNY students mentor middle and high school students from the NYC Department of Education (DOE). CUNY and the DOE are working with the City’s Young Men’s Initiative to hire an additional 50 diverse mentors. That means 10,600 public school students in all five boroughs will have access to 350 CUNY students to support their needs.

The pandemic exposed the systemic injustice of long-standing social and economic inequities, conditions that so many CUNY students — 80 percent of whom are either Black, Latino or Asian — struggle to overcome even in the best of times. Students derive greater benefit from mentors who can address their linguistic and cultural needs, as well as their educational ones. Because they are students themselves, CUNY mentors can speak from the perspective of personal experience.

As Nataly Toro, a John Jay senior and Tutor Corps mentor says: “It’s important for students to hear from current college students like myself because it lets them know they are not alone. We were high school students not too long ago; we can relate.”

Another new program, the Application Advisors Initiative, is enabling CUNY to support 7,000 New York City high school graduating seniors. Working under the supervision of high school counseling staff from February through May, CUNY students will ensure that seniors complete their college applications, file for financial aid and complete all of the requisite paperwork, as they transition to college.

We also recently launched CUNY Winter Bridge, a new program to re-engage seniors who committed to a CUNY college last fall but for a variety of reasons never matriculated. An outgrowth of our College Bridge for All program, which helped support 57,000 DOE high school seniors thanks to a $1.1 million grant from both Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Petrie Foundation, Winter Bridge college coaches reached out to 8,000 recent DOE graduates by Zoom, email and text, starting last December, to guide them through the full enrollment process. I’m happy to say 1,000 of those students were already participating in one of our transition programs such as CUNY Start/Math Start, or polishing their English language skills in our CUNY Language Immersion Program.

These are just some of the ways that CUNY is making sure the pandemic doesn’t erase the progress we have made. As I’ve said many times, CUNY is an integral New York institution. By helping CUNY students, current and future, obtain a college education and learn the skills they need to succeed in the job market, we are helping our beloved city to rebuild, and planting the seeds for its steady rebound.

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.