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Home » Clarion » 2023 » December 2023 » CUNY Reconnect gets a passing grade

CUNY Reconnect gets a passing grade

Funding increases student enrollment By ARI PAUL

Heather James, PSC legislative representative: More advisors are needed for the program’s success.

Heather James, PSC legislative representative: More advisors are needed for the program’s success. (Credit: Geraldo Romo/NYC Council Media Unit)

Grace Hamler, who had a few Hunter College credits to her name but was no longer enrolled, saw a CUNY Reconnect message on her phone, urging former students like herself to reenroll. She called the number on the message and spoke to someone who was “beyond helpful and approachable.”

After an encouraging conversation with the representative of the CUNY Reconnect program, she went to Brooklyn to meet with the Medgar Evers College admissions director. Just a few weeks later, she said, she was “assigned an academic advisor,” and she “registered as a full-time student.” At 72 years old, Hamler is on the cusp of completing her first full semester as a college student.


Hamler is one of the 25,000 CUNY college students who have reenrolled since the CUNY Reconnect program was piloted for the 2022-2023 school year. On November 30, Hamler and representatives of the PSC and the CUNY administration testified at a City Council higher education hearing to praise the program and encourage further investment. Committee Chair Eric Dinowitz noted that the program was inspired by a similar statewide program in Tennessee and by a Center for an Urban Future report on the need to reenroll former college students who have yet to reach a degree. The program was enacted with a $4.4 million investment under the leadership of Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. For the 2023-2024 academic year, the Council invested $5.8 billion into the program.

It’s a great program, the PSC believes, but the program’s success hinges on hiring more full-time advisors to do the work.

“The PSC is elated at the prospect of exponential growth in enrollment of new returning students at CUNY,” PSC Secretary Penny Lewis said in her testimony. “We’re less elated at the reality that CUNY is not structurally or financially ready for this, making the job of members even more difficult than it is now.”

Lewis added, “Are there enough advisors to help shepherd them through the labyrinth that is such a large university? Are there enough faculty to teach classes so students can graduate on time? What about mental health counselors to help them adjust to returning to school while balancing childcare, other jobs or lack of financial support?”


For the PSC, the answer to all of these questions is more city and state investment in CUNY. “Many of Reconnect’s navigators are advisors who were reassigned to the program,” said Heather James, the union’s legislative representative and an assistant professor of social science at Borough of Manhattan Community College. “Their work in CUNY Reconnect shows the power of consistent advising. Students do better when they have help navigating the complexities of college. During the last budget cycle, the PSC asked the council to focus on wraparound services such as mental health counseling, advising, food access, transportation and child care. Without these supports, we know that students must often leave our campuses. Our goal is to reconnect and retain. Wraparound services are needed for all students and can be seen as an extension of the speaker’s Reconnect efforts.”


James added, “The success of Reconnect should serve as a catalyst for hiring more advisors and mental health counselors because it shows what guidance and intervention can do to help students.”

The CUNY administration believes that the program is already showing how effective the city’s investment has been.

Reine Sarmiento, CUNY’s vice chancellor of enrollment management, said in the first year of the program, CUNY “surpassed its enrollment target by 70%, admitting 17,065 students, with a noteworthy 59% of the cohort being female” and “with 67% of the enrolled students identifying as Black or Hispanic.”

Lehman College President Fernando Delgado said that at his campus, 1,849 students returned looking to complete their degrees. He pointed out that the program is working because campuses like his have a dedicated workforce to cater to returning students.

“Students who express interest in returning to the college are assigned an advisor to work with them to minimize challenges when seeking to restart their academic journey,” he said. “All students over the age of 24 are offered the opportunity to complete their studies as a part of the college’s Adult Degree Program, which allows students greater flexibility in general education requirements and the ability to complete a Life Experience Portfolio for credit to accelerate degree completion.”

He added that “students who express interest in returning with financial obligations to the college are supported with monetary awards of up to $1,000 to satisfy outstanding balances,” and City Council funding has “supported over 100 students at Lehman this fall semester.”

Dzelika Daniel, CUNY’s director of strategy and operations, hammered home this point by noting that CUNY navigators help students with their return to campus.

“Our CUNY navigators ease readmission, conduct transcript evaluations and coordinate transfers and other duties to systematically remove obstacles to reenrollment,” she said.


John Surico, senior fellow at the Center for an Urban Future, hailed the program’s success, but said more can be done.

“Although CUNY Reconnect has already exceeded expectations, tens of thousands of New Yorkers have yet to be reached,” he said.

Surico offered a few ideas to improve the program.

“First, the City Council should work with the administration to review support for CUNY Reconnect in the upcoming budget,” he said. “Second, the Council should consider targeted investment to supercharge the effectiveness of CUNY Reconnect and help ensure that far more returning students succeed next time around.”


He also said the city should help each reenrolling student with education-related expenses. “Give every returning student – or every community college student – a free MetroCard from day one. Other options include additional resources to settle unpaid student balances; expanded evening and weekend hours for on-campus services; and additional investment in pre-screening for benefits available to students.”


CUNY has made progress in addressing such needs. In late November, the administration announced a three-year pilot program in the Bronx called Comprehensive Access to Resources for Essential Services – or CUNY CARES – which, according to a CUNY statement, “pays students to conduct outreach to fellow classmates who may qualify for services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid” to ensure that they sign up. The program aims to help students receive needed services from the city’s Human Resources Administration and to connect students with housing providers.

The Council committee hearing came as CUNY boasted increased enrollment after declines during the pandemic, saying in a statement that “freshman applications for the Fall 2024 semester reached 40,960 in October, an increase of 386% from last October when 8,420 students applied.”

Dinowitz noted that the hearing came as the mayor pushes even more drastic cuts to all city agencies, including CUNY community colleges. He didn’t want to see programs like CUNY Reconnect take a hit.

“These are financially responsible programs to invest in,” he said.

Published: December 20, 2023 | Last Modified: December 21, 2023

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