This week, Lehman College will graduate the largest class in its 50-plus-year history. More than 3,600 students will be filled with pride over their achievement as they truly beat the odds.
You see, about half of these soon-to-be graduates are the first in their families to attend college, and roughly half come from households earning less than $30,000 a year. Some are juggling full-time jobs and supporting families with the demands of their college workload.
In addition to the hard work and sacrifice those 3,600 diplomas represent, they symbolize the real key to the Bronx renaissance.
We believe that public higher education is crucial to bring prosperity to Bronx residents. Like most urban areas in the nation, the Bronx has moved away from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy, which requires many more people to earn college degrees, work force certificates, industry certifications, and other credentials in addition to a high school diploma. The Lumina Foundation estimates that by 2025, 60 percent of Americans will need a credential beyond high school in order to compete in the global, knowledge-based economy.
With only 28 percent of Bronx adults with at least an associate’s degree, we have much ground to cover, and we need to take bold action. We are very fortunate that the leaders of our public colleges are working together to bring economic and social mobility to our residents.
In September 2017, Lehman College announced a bold initiative designed to jumpstart educational attainment in the borough. Through its 90x30 challenge, Lehman seeks to double — from 45,000 to 90,000 — the number of market-value degrees and credentials its students will earn by 2030 through its undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as its adult education and professional studies programs that provide certificates for cutting-edge careers, such as virtual and augmented reality training.
Lehman estimated what a better Bronx would look like. If every one of the 462,000 Bronx adults who have a high school diploma or equivalency — but no bachelor’s degree — earned one, the benefits would be significant.
These individuals would generate an additional $6 billion in annual income, and our city, state and country would gain $2.8 billion in tax revenue.
More than 57,000 residents would be lifted out of poverty, and 43,000 would qualify for employer-provided health insurance. In addition, there’s more: Nearly 66,000 fewer individuals would require Medicaid, more than 41,000 fewer would require the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and 12,000 fewer Bronxites would require housing assistance.
Less than two years since the 90x30 challenge was announced, Lehman is posting impressive gains in admissions, graduation and retention rates, and growth in STEM majors. And it is increasingly considered a high-value catalyst for social mobility.
Forbes recently set out to identify “the schools where grads owe the least relative to their likely mid-career income,” and Lehman was one of only four public colleges to rank in the top 25 “low-debt/high-income schools.” The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked Lehman as third in the country for helping students “whose parents were in the bottom 20 percent of income levels reach the top 20 percent for individual earnings.”
Lehman’s successes have not gone unnoticed by the philanthropic sector. Late last year, the Robin Hood Foundation sent the first $1.4 million of a multi-year gift to the college to implement a successful City University of New York initiative to reduce time to obtain a degree. Through partnerships with the borough’s excellent and innovative community colleges — Bronx Community and Hostos — we are making it easier for students to transition from community college to a four-year program.
We are creating opportunities for more students to access STEM courses, and we are enabling more students to participate in CUNY’s renowned Macaulay Honors College right here in the Bronx. Right now we are working to ensure that Lehman will have a robust pipeline of students to make 90x30 a reality.
Over the past decade, the Bronx has become a hub for residential and commercial investment. Indeed, since 2009, the borough has been home to nearly $19 billion and 96.7 million square feet of development. For a borough that endured decades of disinvestment, this is great news.
As our borough’s public colleges graduate more students, that’s even more reason to celebrate.
As the proud products of public higher education, we believe this is the path to transformational change. Investment in our borough’s public colleges — through increased state and city funding, as well as private and foundation support — is a proven tool for economic development, one that will have an impact on the Bronx, and our city, for generations to come.
Cruz is president of Lehman College, and Diaz is the Bronx borough president.