Op-Ed | ‘Decision Day’ Signals the Promise of the Future

Students walking on the Brooklyn College campus in the fall.
Students walking on the Brooklyn College campus in the fall.

In the world of higher ed, May 1 is National College Decision Day – the traditional deadline for high school seniors to commit to a school for the fall. Nowadays many colleges have flexible calendars that make it more of a symbolic date. Still, for students and their families this is a time of year that signals propitious decisions and great expectations, along with high hopes and the inevitable degree of apprehension. The moment in which we find ourselves this year only heightens those emotions.

Throughout my career as a college professor and president and now as CUNY’s chancellor, I’ve always appreciated the energy and sense of anticipation that drives students’ transitions. From the acceptance letter to the welcome-to-campus orientation to the first day of classes, the journey holds great promise, but it can also be fraught with hesitation, especially for students who will be the first in their families to attend college. At CUNY, those first-generation students make up nearly half our students.

Having worked with many of these incoming students and their parents over the years, I’ve been inspired by their commitment to get to college and by their aspirations for completing their education and pursuing their dreams. But I’ve also been cognizant of how daunting it all can be, and the reality that so many factors can pose obstacles, impede the progress and even prevent many of those students from making it to the first day.

That’s why we don’t take the time between May and September for granted. Over the past few years, CUNY has paid increasingly closer attention to helping admitted students navigate the transition and to providing a range of support so they’re ready, willing and able to begin classes in September.

This year, as we consider the still-open questions of when, how and to what extent we can safely return to our campuses, incoming students will have corresponding questions and concerns. Will remote or hybrid classes in college, for instance, be the same as they have been in high school? So the initiatives we’ve developed to connect with admitted students will be more important than ever.

Last summer, we expanded our innovative College Bridge for All program to offer every graduating senior in New York City public high schools support in their transition to college. The program, a collaboration with the Department of Education and supported by grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, trained and paid about 200 CUNY students to be “near-peer” coaches for graduating seniors. The CUNY coaches offered help with all kinds of things: Academic planning, FAFSA filing, adapting to online classes, accessing programs like CUNY Start and much more. We found that the program had a positive impact on enrollment in a year when enrollment was down. The expansion couldn’t have been better timed, and we’re gearing up for another successful summer for College Bridge.

This year we’re also launching the CUNY Recovery Corps, a special summer youth employment program in partnership with the city that will hire thousands of CUNY students, including 2,000 who will be part of what we’re calling the CUNY Welcome Corps. They’ll lead orientation activities and social events, some virtual and some in person, for new students on every CUNY campus.

It’s all part of our determination to support this year’s incoming students and welcome them with an even bigger embrace.

Even in times of uncertainty, I try to remember that higher education has the power and potential to transform lives. Perhaps that is truer now than ever, as we emerge from this tumultuous year and a half as a community, a city and a country. And that’s why National College Decision Day this year has even greater significance.

In fact, I see this time as an inflection point in CUNY’s historical commitment to advancing access and opportunity for all New Yorkers. The high school seniors who are making their decisions this month, and anticipating their arrival on CUNY campuses come August, have a lot to look forward to.

To every student out there making their decision and every parent and grandparent, hermana and tía who helped them get to this point and proudly share in the excitement of seeing them take the first steps to a brighter future, congratulations. This, too, is your accomplishment.

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban public university, serving over 500,000 students of all ages in seven community colleges, 11 senior colleges and seven graduate or professional institutions. Visit cuny.edu.

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.