The Engine of Social and Economic Mobility for the 21st Century

The City University of New York is a distinctively urban university with a unique mission. Our task, for the past 170 years, has been to provide “a vehicle of upward mobility for the disadvantaged,” through an “integrated system of higher education.” Led by this historic mandate, CUNY has become among the most accessible, affordable and respected universities in the country – covering the spectrum from community colleges to graduate and professional schools. We offer incomparable opportunities to New Yorkers, particularly those from low-income families, underrepresented groups and immigrant populations.

Our special role as New York’s largest scale engine of social mobility takes on added urgency in the 21st century, as a college diploma becomes an increasingly important ticket to the middle class. That New York may now be among the first states in the country to extend free tuition to many thousands of middle and low-income residents adds even greater reach to CUNY’s promise. Governor Cuomo’s free tuition proposal is a clear recognition of the critical role of quality public higher education in providing greater opportunity and success.

CUNY’s role in advancing low-income students to the middle class and beyond is well-known, and an important new study, by a group of respected economists, offers stunning confirmation of our accomplishments: according to their data, CUNY propels six times the number of low income students to the middle class and beyond as the eight Ivy league schools, plus MIT, Duke, Chicago and Stanford, combined. There is a place for many types of academic institutions in American higher education, but that research affirmed the extraordinary position that CUNY occupies, where access on the broadest scale, high quality and successful results converge.

Our 24 colleges and schools have conferred nearly 1.5 million associate, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees since the 1960s. CUNY students and faculty consistently earn the most prestigious honors and enjoy exceptional success in fields ranging from literature and music to medicine, science, business and public service. And, in recent years, we have expanded our educational and career opportunities significantly, opening CUNY’s first new community college in the past 40 years, a graduate school of journalism, the top-ranked Macaulay Honors College, graduate schools of cinema and public health, one of the most diverse medical schools in the country, and state-of-the-art scientific research centers.


Not only have we given generations of New Yorkers the means to reach their aspirations, the University and its graduates have played an essential role in propelling the city to its status as the country’s media, financial, health care and cultural capital. But sustaining that success will only grow more difficult in the new era we are entering. New York, though endowed with extraordinary advantages, faces great challenges as it competes with other global megacities for talent, influence and economic position.

The knowledge-based economy requires an increasingly well-educated, globally-oriented, technologically-competent workforce. It requires graduates who are entrepreneurial, innovative and collaborative. To remain a global leader, New York must adapt to these changes with leadership, intellectual capital and a diverse, technology-savvy workforce. In other words, to be successful, New York needs a reenergized CUNY.

While CUNY has done many things well, the University still has far to go to meet these new demands. Talent is distributed evenly across demographic groups and income levels, but opportunity is not. The likelihood of an individual’s success is stubbornly correlated with wealth, and we know that there are great, persistent gaps in the opportunity for college attendance, graduation, and access to the best careers. Those challenges have made our historic mission even more relevant and urgent. CUNY is uniquely positioned to bridge these gaps, dramatically increasing individual opportunities and advancing the state’s and the city’s prosperity.


By working closely with our faculty and staff to implement this strategic framework, we will meet the challenge through a comprehensive series of initiatives. We will strengthen significantly our partnership with the city’s schools to ensure more high school graduates are college ready, and, for those who are not, we will improve the effectiveness of our remediation programs. Diplomas are the keys that can open a lifetime of career success in this new economy, and perhaps the single most important initiative we can undertake is to help more students obtain them more quickly.

And students today need more than degrees; they need real-world experiences that will connect them with their passions, provide workplace skills and the networks to help launch careers in the most promising, high-growth fields. We will create more avenues for this experiential learning for undergraduates. We will also offer flexible learning opportunities so mid-career New Yorkers can advance or change careers in leading sectors of the economy, studying at our campuses or on expanded online offerings. We will expand and bring greater diversity to our faculty and staff so that they reflect the breadth of backgrounds and experiences that have long energized our student body. CUNY will support its faculty as leaders in the world of ideas, knowledge-creation, and innovation, from poetry and music to mathematics and physics.

To achieve these critical objectives, we will reengineer CUNY into a more collaborative and efficient institution, one that leverages its strengths in fundamentally new ways. We will focus on programs that accelerate student attainment and meet ambitious performance objectives. This will require that we open the doors to an easier flow of students and faculty between our campuses and expand opportunities for collaborations with partners who share our vision and who will help us deliver more to our students, our city and state.


We will implement new levels of connectivity in a number of ways — within the CUNY system by eliminating barriers and friction that impede the movement of students and faculty between our colleges, with the city and state by partnering effectively with their agencies as well as with other leading universities and research institutions, where CUNY will build academic and research collaborations, and globally, by connecting with universities and research institutions in other large urban centers to insure a robust flow of ideas, students and faculty. We will succeed in our reinvigorated mission by connecting in ways that produce a whole that is far more valuable than the sum of the university’s parts.

Supporting this framework will be a sustainable funding model. We will build a platform for increasing support from foundations, philanthropies, alumni and individuals who are eager to work with us on our common goals. We will obtain greater value from the university’s resources at a time when traditional funding sources have been stressed. This model will include a sharp focus on improving services to faculty, staff and our partners, while reducing administrative costs with efficiencies and better business practices. In addition to making functions such as admissions and human resources operate more effectively, we will ensure we have the financial and other internal controls we need to effectively manage risks to the enterprise. CUNY will be more transparent in its operation and more accountable to its stakeholders. These policies and practices will help support the compelling case for additional investment from the state and the city in critical programs.

The expectations of New York City and its flagship public university are high, and our strategic framework provides the vision for how we will fulfill our mandate for this new era.