Op-Ed: CUNY students provide needed ‘Bridge’ to college


By Félix V. Matos Rodríguez

As a mentor in CUNY’s College Bridge for All program, Sebastián Sepúlveda is focused on helping high school graduates navigate the tricky transition to college and escape the so-called “summer melt,” a phenomenon in which all too many prospective students succumb to uncertainty in the restless months after high school graduation and abandon their college dreams.

Sepúlveda, who is about to begin his junior year at Lehman College, is part of a critical group of CUNY students who are supporting thousands of graduating seniors from city public high schools as they navigate pre-college paperwork and financial planning, activities that can easily trip up incoming freshmen during the long summer break, particularly this year.

“These are very difficult times for everyone,” says Sepúlveda, a first-generation college student who immigrated from Colombia six years ago and says the scope of his responsibilities has grown because of COVID-19. “This is about helping the community to make sure that no one is left behind.”

Even in the best of times, the transitional period can be a precarious stretch. Studies show that as many as 40 percent of low-income students accepted to college can experience a “summer melt” that prevents them from matriculating in the fall. In the face of the pandemic-interrupted spring, when graduates were isolated from teachers and advisers, that percentage could be even greater this coming fall.

That’s why CUNY is proud to offer College Bridge for All as an essential service to increase access to postsecondary education for high school graduates. Thanks to an $877,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and a $250,000 grant from The Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, the program is poised to reach graduating seniors from every New York City public high school this year, a significant achievement that has magnified CUNY’s ability to help New York and its colleges rebound from the pandemic.

Employing a near-peer approach, CUNY student coaches share their own experiences with graduating seniors to convey the importance of continuing to college. It’s the equivalent of having access to a guidance counselor, a big brother or sister and a college adviser, all rolled into one.

Launched in 2016 in collaboration between CUNY and the New York City Department of Education (DOE), the program also serves as a source of summer employment, this year paying 176 CUNY students and additional coaches from partnering community-based organizations to help thousands of recent high school grads. All told, their efforts will support the entire Class of 2020, about 55,000 recent high school grads.

The benefits to incoming students have been clear. In 2017, participating students enrolled in college at a rate 11 percent higher than the DOE average, an impact that was driven by increased college enrollment for students identified as low income, Latinx and/or Spanish speaking.

CUNY is now combating summer melt on multiple fronts. We recently received a $175,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pilot a new summer bridge and persistence peer mentoring program that mirrors the goals of College Bridge for All.

College Bridge for All coach Cindy Velíz, a junior at City Tech, describes panicked texts from students who are confused about paperwork and other procedural hurdles, many of them soon-to-be first-generation college students who lack a support system to get answers. Velíz walks them through the process, easing their anxieties.

“I tell them stories about my own experiences to make them feel comfortable,” said Velíz, herself a first-gen college student. “We talk about what they may want to major in, their college schedule, the kind of career they want to pursue. … We bond over our shared experiences, and I feel like they’re more prepared and excited to go to college after our talks. It makes me feel good to know that I’m making a difference.”

Recent graduates of city public high schools who are looking to connect with a Bridge coach can ​visit here​.

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.