Jose Luis Cruz’s Fight to Expand Opportunity for Today’s Students

Dr. José Luis Cruz has a national reputation as a powerful voice for equity, opportunity and accountability in higher education. As an innovative administrator and advocate for low-income students, he has been at the forefront of efforts to enact effective policies that can deliver a high-quality college education for all of today’s students.

Dr. Cruz currently serves as president of Lehman College of the City University of New York. Faced with the reality that the Bronx is next to last in educational attainment in New York State, Dr. Cruz’s work focuses on expanding postsecondary opportunities for residents of the borough — empowering them to find a path to improve their lot in life and the prosperity of their communities.

“There are millions of students who are coming of age in America today, but — because of the color of their skin, the balance of their checking account, their place of origin, or the tenets of their faith — have not been afforded the opportunities they need to meet their full potential. The higher education sector is diverse and a federal accountability system must be tailored to consider differences in institutional missions, student demographics, program objectives, and governance structures.”

He prides himself on building on Lehman’s legacy as an engine of opportunity and vehicle of upward mobility: the Equality of Opportunity Project recently ranked the college as #4 in the country for its ability to propel large numbers of low-income students into the middle class and beyond. Sensing the need to do more, Dr. Cruz has been instrumental in the creation of Lehman’s “90×30” initiative, which aims to double to 90,000 the number of high-quality degrees and certificates that Lehman students are expected to earn by 2030. Meeting this goal requires expanding student access, increasing completion rates, reducing time to degree, and improving learning outcomes.

Dr. Cruz is no stranger to personal adversity. He moved frequently as a child and attended 8 schools during his K-12 education in Puerto Rico, California, Honduras, and Florida. Through all of this, he persevered. Dr. Cruz recalled that his parents often reminded him about the importance of education, saying “it’s the one thing no one can take away from you.” He entered the University of Puerto Rico as a freshman at age 16 and welcomed his first child at age 19.

Carrying the dual responsibilities of student and father, Dr. Cruz worked to make ends meet and continue his educational journey with the support of financial aid programs, teaching assistantships, academic fellowships, other public assistance programs. He knows first-hand how a college diploma can transform the lives of graduates, their families and their communities:

“Growing up, I understood that a college education was the path to a better life. The reason I fight for educational equity is because I have a personal understanding of the transformative power higher education has in shaping the life trajectories of individuals, their families, and the communities they represent. There is no better calling than to extend those opportunities to others; especially those who historically have been underserved.”

Though he faced serious challenges as a working dad attending college, Dr. Cruz credits his professors for keeping him focused on success. Their devotion to him and his classmates ignited his passion for higher education. Dr. Cruz went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering magna cum laude from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, and his doctorate from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Policy Power Plays

  • Ensure equity is a lens through which impact is measured and resources are allocated.
  • Define and reward institutions that promote upward mobility and strong outcomes for all of today’s students, particularly low-income, first generation and underrepresented students.
  • Implement innovative ways to attract and retain students.

Dr. Jose Luis Cruz is a member of the Higher Learning Advocates Champions Network, a group of forward-thinking state and local leaders devoted to improving quality, outcomes and affordability in postsecondary education. For more information, contact