CUNY Chancellor Matos Rodríguez is everywhere these days promoting and advocating for a system he calls “the Ellis Island of education.” CUNY has a storied history where separate public colleges, many with famous alumni from underserved communities, came together over time to form the nation’s largest urban public university, serving more than 226,000 degree-seeking students each year. 

Matos Rodríguez, known as “Felo,” is a vital part of that story.  A historian, professor, and author, Matos Rodríguez grew up in Puerto Rico, received a degree in Latin American studies from Yale University and received his PhD in history from Columbia University. He was president of two CUNY colleges before becoming the system’s first chancellor of color and first Latino to hold the office in 2019. Now, after four years and a pandemic, Matos Rodríguez acknowledges many challenges remain despite the progress he has made to build relationships with industry leaders, improve infrastructure at campuses, and create more workforce opportunities for CUNY students. 

In his interview with LW, the chancellor talks about the strategies he is using to improve the career connection for his students, as well as his efforts to strengthen the system. He also opines on broader issues, such as the value of public higher education and how going to college can be both a stressor and a haven for his students. 

CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez sitting at a table
Photo provided by CUNY

LW:  What are the priorities you are working on from a systems-wide level?  

FMR: CUNY is probably the best institution in the Unites States to boost social mobility. Nobody does a better job of moving people from the bottom quartiles of the socioeconomic ladder to the middle class and above than CUNY. We’ve done that by remaining an affordable institution—75% of our students graduate debt free and about 68% attend tuition-free, thanks to state and federal aid. We also have top-notch faculty and staff. Affordability and quality staff are two of CUNY’s strengths. 

What we have not done as well, particularly for a place where half the students are first-generation, is career preparedness and the whole connection to the world of work.  There has been vast underinvestment, historically, in career services, and not a lot done to integrate that world of work with curriculum and academic departments to really prepare students for careers. We’ve changed that with help from our partners in city and state leadership and the private sector.

LW: How do you tackle such a major issue at such a big place?

FMR: I break it into buckets.  The data we have on students participating, for example, in paid internships, tell us that those who participate in those programs graduate faster. When they go to get a job after graduation, they get it faster than their peers without that experience and their first-time pay is higher.  The other value here is the professional capital these opportunities create.  All college students come with assets and challenges, but the students with professional parents can often leverage their family’s networks once they graduate.  More than half of my students don't have that. We need to be that connector to opportunities for them. Right from the start, I said, "I want to be known, at the end of my time, as the patron saint of paid internships for CUNY students."

Nobody does a better job of moving people from the bottom quartiles of the socioeconomic ladder to the middle class and above than CUNY.

We have made a lot of progress in this area. A coalition of CEOs from some of the city’s largest employers was created three years ago to provide access to high-potential jobs for underrepresented New Yorkers. Another industry partnership, CUNY Futures in Finance, was formed by Centerbridge Partners, Bloomberg, and Goldman Sachs to connect financial services to CUNY talent.  We’ve also launched a number of public-private partnerships which, thanks to a strong backing from Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams, put millions of dollars to work on paid apprenticeships and internships for CUNY students.  

The point I really drive home to industry in New York is that our paid internships do all the things that paid internships do everywhere but because of our price point, it can really be an extra agent of advancement. Our tuition is approximately $7,000 a year for senior colleges and $5,000 a year for community colleges, for New York State residents. That paid internship that they have for a semester, if they were going to a community college, could pay for their semester. If they're on financial aid, then that extra money can be used for food and housing, and all the other expenses we know make it challenging for them to stay in school. It's like a scholarship. When I was president at Queens and a donor or alumni would come and say, "I'm going to give you $7,000, for a scholarship for a year," I said, "No, give it to me in a paid internship." At the end of the day, it will do the same thing financially for the student, but give that student a lot more in experience.  

CUNY is the ideal partner for New York industry.  I say to them, “We are a one-stop shop, come and deal with CUNY because we have 25 campuses, so if you're an employer and you don't want to have 25 conversations, we have a whole operation that can do that for you.”

LW: What other “buckets” are you working on in this area? 

FMR: We are integrating career preparedness into all that we do, including in the classroom and to get students to think about career options as early as possible and not in a narrow way. You want to make students think about career possibilities and begin to explore them and determine whether there's a path, a liking, or not. And we don’t want them to wait until junior year or senior year and say, "Oh my God, I need to get a job. Now I need to think about all these things." 

The second reason why students drop out of college—finances is the first one—is not knowing why they're in college in the first place, and also not being able to make a connection with what they're doing in college with what will happen in life later. So that entire career exploration is what I think we owe our students. And that's why we want to get to career options early, to make students think about it. We're actually trying to map for every major—and in fields within majors, not just the courses—some of the activities that you should be engaged in.  A lot of our students think career services are only for high-performing students with really good grades. My role is to get them introduced to careers, make them feel worthy of them, and then go out and compete and kick some butt.

Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez with CUNY students and moscot
Photo provided by CUNY

LW: You mentioned incorporating this work into the classroom.  What does that entail? 

FMR: Curriculum revision is another bucket we’re working on. The New York Jobs CEO Council is a key partner in helping us think about updating curriculum. It is also a main focus of our new Office of Transformation, headed by an amazing senior faculty advisor Cathy N. Davidson, one of the best writers out there on education, to help us think differently about our pedagogy.  The key to that is to make sure that faculty value this work and have the tools to do it.  So many of them do this already but we are asking them to be more intentional about it so that their students understand that this exercise that you did here, or this test or this essay or this project, creates skills that they can go to an employer with.  But what I hope that our students do is that, as they're building a portfolio, either personally or through career services, they think that what they have learned in a class is something they can then go tell someone, “I learned X, Y, and Z in this class, and here's a concrete example. You need me to work in groups? Let me tell you about the project I did in my history or anthropology class.” 

Faculty have to be our partners in this. We need to help them think about that value, that engagement, because for students, even though they talk to advisors and other staff, faculty are still their key role models. 

Already, faculty have competencies in this area through NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers), that are embedded into the curriculum, but they're not necessarily thinking about it that way, so we decided that we need to have champions.  We've been working with the president of NACE and with a group of career fellows out of the Office of Transformation. We started with 20 faculty from across CUNY. The fellows have been thinking together about the best ways that CUNY faculty, in all fields, can support our students in their future lives and careers. This year, CUNY will scale the pilot to nearly 50 faculty, with the goal of promoting strong relationships between classroom learning and career success.  

LW: Has your experience as a community college president influenced some of the changes you are working on system-wide?

FMR: Absolutely.  Transfers have always been the key driver in the system. The transition from community college to four-year schools has to be improved, so that students aren’t set back in time and money by needless requirements.  This is a challenge for two and four-year schools everywhere, but at CUNY where we’re working within a system, we have no leg to stand on if we don’t get this right. 

The second reason why students drop out of college – finances is the first one – is not being able to make a connection with what they're doing in college with what will happen in life later.

At the same time, when I came on board as chancellor, since I was president of a two-year school, I told all the presidents, “We have to improve the two-year experience.”  What often happens is if you come to CUNY and you are not college-ready, you need to start out in a community college. Part of the challenge has been that not every student starting at a community college really wants to be there. So, I told the community college presidents, “You need to create a rationale of why people want to come here. Not because we tell them to, but because either you have the student life or signature programs that they want to engage with.”  This is particularly important at this point in time when we’ve lost so many students to the pandemic.  We need to ask ourselves, outside of the personal circumstances, “Why is it that students don’t want to return or to start in the first place?” 

LW: Do you think one of the reason people stop out, or never enroll, has to do with public perception about the declining value of a college degree? 

FMR: I think that accounts for some percentage. Whatever I tell you will be a guesstimate. What I do think affects us is the perception that higher education is unattainable. Many of our students, particularly the ones who are low-income, assume it will not be affordable because the larger discourse is about debt and lack of affordability. They assume because we're a part of higher ed that this place is going to be expensive without even thinking about applying for financial aid, or seeing what options are out there, so I think that we are being really affected by a mindset, which is the debt discourse. But that is not our story. Our average debt, for the 25% of the students that end up with debt, is, I think, between $12,000 and $14,000. But it’s hard to get that story out. There's no validator in many families that can say, “This worked out,” and there might be a validator that somebody went and dropped out and said, “Yeah, look at what happened to cousin so and so.” We need to crack that. I tell people, “Listen, there's probably no state more generous with financial aid than the state of New York.”

LW: Speaking of New York, what case do you make for why CUNY is worth investing in? 

FMR: The value and the importance of what we do is huge, and 80% of our students stay in New York so they are part of their communities. Graduates get higher paying jobs, which adds to our tax base, and they are less dependent on social service programs. There are also social and civic gains when you think about where all of our immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants learn about democracy and what it means to be an American in New York City.  There's another important category of work there of civic engagement, what I like to call civic mobility. That is also a key part of what we bring to the table. 

LW: We know so much about the stresses of college, particularly for students who have the added burden of poverty.  How do CUNY schools and others like them impact their students’ wellbeing? 

FMR: Obviously, there is some stress generated by going to school from a financial perspective.  “Can I pay? Can I stay?” And then there are the exams and the stress that comes from managing your life as a student. In that sense, we do add some stress. 

But we are also such havens for our students.  They’re commuter students and, in many places, the little campus corner where they can sit down and study quietly may be the only place they have some privacy. In my first presidency, every nook and cranny that we could put a desk, a chair, whatever, we used because some of those South Bronx students were in apartments with three or four siblings and they needed quiet space.

For parents of small children, there is often campus childcare. There are also mental health counselors and extracurricular activities that can provide some stress relief. It really is a balance in helping them to manage and overcome the stress of going to college.