Apr 19, 2023

More Than a Wise Investment: CUNY ACE is Part of New York City's Recovery

In 2015, Robin Hood funded the pilot for CUNY’s Accelerate, Complete, and Engage (ACE) — a comprehensive academic support program designed to help students complete their bachelor’s degree on time. Meet three CUNY ACE students at Lehman College and learn how this program helped them succeed.

CUNY ACE student participants Lehman College

Why is earning a college degree so important and how does that relate to poverty anyway?

College graduates earn as much as a million dollars more over their lifetime compared to high school graduates, and people with only a high school diploma are three times as likely to be in poverty compared to a four-year college graduate. People who never completed high school are four times as likely to live in poverty.

When it comes to moving out of poverty, education matters.

But as critical as a college credential is to accessing well-paying jobs, far too many of those entering CUNY’s four-year schools are leaving without a degree. Founded in 1847, CUNY is the city’s public university with two- and four-year colleges spread across 25 campuses, physically located in and serving all five boroughs. For a long period of CUNY’s past, tuition was free. Times changed, and although students pay tuition, 75% of CUNY students graduate with no debt.

The New York Times says, “CUNY propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford, and Chicago combined.” Roughly 80% of CUNY’s first-year students come from New York City public high schools and half of all CUNY students come from households with incomes less than $30,000. Most CUNY students work extraordinarily hard, and many juggle work, family, and school simultaneously. Many are parents, and some are the sole breadwinners of their families. 80% of CUNY graduates stay and work in New York City.

CUNY is the city’s most effective engine for social and economic upward mobility.

Turns out, it’s incredibly difficult to be a low-income student, paying for school and transportation while working to survive and, in many instances, supporting a family and raising children. It takes a toll on graduation rates, and unless one graduates, the transformative upward mobility promised through education is elusive.

Robin Hood wanted to change that.

In 2015 at CUNY’s John Jay College, Robin Hood funded the pilot program for CUNY’s Accelerate, Complete, and Engage (ACE) — a highly promising comprehensive academic support program designed to help students complete their academic journey to the bachelor’s degree on time. Modeled on the principles of CUNY’s highly successful and nationally recognized Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which is heralded for its large impact on the graduation rates for associate degrees, ACE provides intensive academic advising, career development, tuition scholarships, textbooks, and transportation assistance.

Results from the earliest ACE cohorts have been quite impressive — the first two cohorts combined (2015 and 2017) achieved an on-time, four-year graduation rate that is a nearly 18-percentage point boost (59% vs. 41.5%) over the comparison group. The ACE model works, and Robin Hood is committed to scaling it.

Following its initial success, ACE expanded to several other CUNY campuses, but it still only serves just 3% of CUNY students.

We can do better. Having funded $13,556,800 over CUNY ACE’s lifetime, Robin Hood is focused on garnering more public funding to expand the program to full scale at CUNY’s baccalaureate granting colleges. Expanding funding for the program by $117.6 million would help an additional 9,400 students earn bachelor’s degrees over the next 10 years, raising their collective lifetime earnings by $10.3 billion.

That’s a massive return on investment.

“The road to New York City’s recovery runs through CUNY. It is our city’s greatest engine for upward mobility and its ACE program has more than proven its value by continuously increasing graduation rates for the city’s lowest income students. Obtaining a college degree is a surefire way out of poverty and that is why Robin Hood considers it one of our smartest investments and why we remain bullish about the program’s future. Your starting point in life should not determine where you end up. An investment in ACE pays off — for the students who earn their degrees, and for our city and state, which benefit from these graduates’ talent and their contributions to our economy,” said Matt Klein, Chief Program & Impact Officer at Robin Hood.

We’d like you to meet three of those students from the Lehman College ACE program in the Bronx: Kelly, Hassan, and Candice.

Meet Kelly: Friendly, bubbly, and praises CUNY ACE for being the wraparound support system she needed to get her bachelor’s degree. When asked about how CUNY ACE is fighting poverty, Kelly shared, “…I think that’s the best thing ever, to just let people kind of flourish without having so many things on their plate, when they can just be a student.”


Meet Candice: Shy, creative, and someone who thought college would never be attainable, until she learned about the CUNY ACE program in high school. Now, Candice is a Senior, majoring in art with a specialization in computer graphics. “I really appreciate being in the ACE program, and I know that it really pushed me forward to where I am now,” said Candice.


Meet Hassan: Charismatic, a Bronx native, and the kind of person you know will achieve their goals in life, but who needed a stepping stone like the CUNY ACE program to keep going. We asked Hassan what kind of impact ACE had on his life. He told us, “If you have someone that helps you and invests in you to get where you need to be, then they are supporters of your future. They are your destiny helpers. So, I would encourage everybody to be in ACE, everybody.”