The Big 50: A Look at the History of York

12 Unveiling the Campus

CUNY’s Board of Trustees approved construction for the campus in 1978 and construction began in December 1980.


Known to some as “The Beacon on the Hill,” York College has withstood the test of time despite its meager beginnings. Nearly 50 years later, the school has grown to become a well-respected institution of higher learning in the community of Southeast Queens.

Founded in 1966 and originally designated as Alpha College York, as it was renamed by the college’s first President, Dr. Dumont F. Kenny. York was the first senior college founded under the City University of New York (CUNY) system, and the fifth overall. Since its opening in the fall of 1967, the college has progressed significantly over the years, with nearly 50 undergraduate programs to date and Dr. Marcia V. Keizs serving as the college’s sixth president. Most recently, York held its sixteenth commencement ceremony for its 2016 graduating class of more than 1000 students, a considerable increase from its first class of 1971 with only 150 students and at a time when the school had no solid foundation.

A Place to Call Home

From 1967 to 1987 York spent “20 nomadic years” renting space at various places around Queens, before settling at its current location, according to higher education assistant and graduate of York, Marcia Comrie.

In 1967, with no physical campus of its own, York’s first classes were held in rooms rented at a local synagogue, the Oakland Jewish Center in Bayside. It remained there for the first academic year.  Responding to pressure from local businesses, community and religious leaders, the following year the CUNY Board of Higher Education designated Jamaica as the future site of York’s eventual campus, despite opposition from then Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor Edward Koch who felt it unnecessary to have an institution of higher learning in the area.

Still in Bayside in 1971, York had relocated to temporary classrooms on the Queensborough Community College campus where they remained for three years before moving again to a renovated former Montgomery Ward Department Store and other areas in Jamaica. After taking over as York’s second and longest serving president, Milton G. Bassin along with students, faculty, community leaders and local officials including former Queens Borough President, the late Donald Manes and other Queens legislators were instrumental in fighting to secure funding to build York’s campus.

CUNY’s Board of Trustees approved construction for the campus in 1978 and with approval from then Governor Hugh Carey, construction began in December 1980. In 1986, York held its first classes in its Academic Core Building. York’s Performing Arts Center and Health and Physical Education building opened in 1990, followed by its athletic fields in 1991.

Academic Growth and Development

Still maintaining its academic focus, York currently serves as one of CUNY’s leading liberal arts colleges, however its curriculum has expanded over the years.

At a time when the school was still struggling to stay open, its future was uncertain due to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. York’s curriculum drastically changed to included majors in the health professions. The Office of Continuing Education was also established to provide classes to local residents.

Today, York’s academic programs are divided into three schools including Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Systems and Health Science and Professional Programs, offering  bachelor degrees in majors like English, mathematics, psychology, nursing, pharmaceutical science, music and more. Along with its various minors and certificate programs York also offers three master’s degree programs in occupational therapy, physician assistant and pharmaceutical science all established by president Keizs.

In addition to the various degree and certificate programs, York also has on-site facilities that help to advance students’ educational experience. York houses the CUNY Aviation Institute, ideal for those majoring in Aviation Management. York is also home to the Northeast Regional Office and Laboratory of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, allowing students majoring in fields like chemistry and biology to work with and learn from scientific professionals.


Aside from its expansive academic focus, York also offers various sports programs for students including basketball, soccer, tennis, swimming, women’s softball and more. York also competes as a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III member of the CUNY Athletic Conference.

Enrollment and Graduation Rate

Since 1967 enrollment at York has more than tripled and approximately doubled since opening its campus nearly 30 years ago.

York’s initial enrollment consisted of 371 students, by 1986 enrollment numbers reached 4,276. Today there are more than 8,500 students enrolled at York, which make up an increasingly diverse student population.

Minority groups make up 82 percent of the student body, comprised of people of African American, Latino and or Hispanic, Asian, Native American and other ethnic descents. More than half of the students are foreign born, hailing from approximately 125 different countries. For many of these students, they are the first in their families to go to college. York’s diversity is represented by the hundreds of flags displayed around the atrium of the school’s Academic Core building today.

The majority of students enrolled at York attend full time, however many work and have other outside responsibilities, a factor that is considered to contribute to the school’s low graduation rate. It was reported in a 2015 issue of Pandora’s Box, the college’s student newspaper, that York’s four year graduation rate for first time full-time freshman was only five percent, the lowest of all the CUNY senior colleges. It was noted that several factors including part-time enrollment and a higher transfer out rate also contributed to the low percentage.

York has approximately 30,000 alumni, working in a variety of professions. Graduates include Jeremy Weinstein, a Queens Supreme Court Justice, George Grasso, a Criminal Court Justice in the Bronx, Dr. Andrew G. Campbell, a Professor of Medical Science and Dean of the Graduate School at Brown University and Deborah Persaud, MD, an award-winning pediatric AIDS researcher at Johns Hopkins University, among others.

Moving Forward

Expanding further, the college is awaiting funding for construction of a newly designed The Academic Village and Conference Center will be a nine-story 162,000 square foot facility that will house the bookstore, Art Gallery, Small Business Development Center, Information Technology and more and is said to “change the face of downtown Jamaica,” according to Comrie.

With all its progress in the last 50 years York college continues to grow and expand.

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