The City University of New York System (CUNY) owes its existence to Townsend Harris, a New York merchant, minor politician, and the first United States Consul General to Japan. He founded the Free Academy (later the City College of New York) in 1847 to provide free higher education for New York City's burgeoning working population.

Over a hundred years later, in 1961, Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the New York State Education Law to deal with a similar increase in students. The law established the Board of Education (now Board of Trustees) of the City University of New York and tasked it to oversee City College and the other constituent units, including Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens College and the Graduate Center.

Today, The City University of New York is the largest city university system in the world, serving 500,000 students at campuses throughout the five boroughs of New York City.

On October 24, 1966, CUNY voted to create a fifth senior college, designated as Alpha College, to serve the city's growing student population. Its first president, former Queensborough Community College President, Dr. Dumont F. Kenny, quickly renamed the new institution York College. Kenny hoped to build a bucolic, suburban liberal arts college near Fort Totten in Queens. These plans, however, quickly fell through.

York opened its doors in the fall of 1967 without firm plans for a permanent home. Its first classes took place in rooms rented from the Oakland Jewish Center in Bayside, Queens. An entering class of 371 students, largely white and American-born, and a full-time instructional staff of 50 occupied that site for the first academic year.

In May 1968, in response to pressure from local business, community, and religious leaders, the CUNY Board of Higher Education selected Jamaica as the future site of York's permanent campus. While York waited for authorization to build the new campus, it relocated to rudimentary quarters throughout Queens. In 1971, when New York City Community College (originally New York City College of Technology) president Milton G. Bassin M.M.E, P.E. assumed the presidency of York, he found it housed in temporary classrooms on the campus of Queensborough Community College in Bayside. York stayed there for three years before moving to a renovated ex-Montgomery Ward department store and other buildings in Jamaica.

With the fiscal crisis of the mid-seventies, York's future seemed uncertain. Jamaica residents, eager to have the college in the neighborhood, pressured the city to keep York's doors open. In May 1978, the CUNY Board reaffirmed York's permanence by authorizing construction of the new campus in Jamaica. At the same time, the College underwent expansive curricular development. While York maintained an emphasis on the liberal arts, it also began to offer career-related majors in the health professions. The College also opened the Office of Continuing Education to give classes on practical subjects to Jamaica's residents.

With approval from Governor Hugh Carey, construction on York's permanent campus began in December 1980. In 1986, York held its first classes in the new Academic Core. At the time, student enrollment had grown to 4,276. In 1990, York opened the Performing Arts Center and the Health and Physical Education facilities, followed by the athletic fields a year later.

The CUNY Aviation Institute was established in 2003 to prepare students for success in a rapidly changing industry. Graduates in that field now enjoy successful careers in the industry. Since 2005, with the construction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's regional headquarters on York's campus, students in relevant majors now take advantage of collaborative internships, fellowships, and research with world-class scientists. 

In 2009, York reorganized its 18 academic departments into three schools: School of Arts and Sciences, School of Business and Information Systems, and School of Health and Behavioral Sciences. In that same year, York launched the Provost Distinguished Scholars Lecture Series, which attracts renowned writers, scholars, and scientists to speak to the York community. In 2022, the Provost Distinguished Scholars Lecture Series was merged into the Spring Symposium, a platform designed to highlight the innovative research being done by York faculty, and to provide a venue for discussion and collaboration.

Now led by Interim President Claudia V. Schrader, York College is committed to the four pillars identified in its strategic plan, One York - student success, academic excellence, faculty/staff support, and a vibrant campus. The College has more than 7,200 students.

York College Presidents

  • Dumont F. Kenny, Ph.D., 1966 - 1970
  • Milton G. Bassin, M.M.E., P.E., 1971 - 1991
  • Josephine D. Davis, Ed.D., 1991 - 1995
  • Charles C. Kidd, Sr., Ph.D., P.E., 1996 - 2002
  • Robert L. Hampton, Ph.D., 2003 - 2004
  • Marcia V. Keizs, Ed.D., 2005 - 2019
  • Berenecea Johnson Eanes, Ph.D., 2019 - 2023
  • Claudia V. Schrader, EdD 2024-Present