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Is This the Moment to Truly Transform the ROI of Higher Education?

There are programs that are proven to grow college completion rates. The Biden administration’s American Families Plan wants to spend $62 billion to expand them.

New graduates line up before the start of the Bergen Community College commencement at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (Associated Press/Seth Wenig)

When Bronx native Jesus Diaz started community college in 2013, he worried about how he would afford to be a full-time student. The now 26-year-old said his parents didn’t make enough to support him, so when he learned about the City University of New York (CUNY)’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), a student support program that recognizes that low graduation rates often stem from challenges outside of the classroom, he enrolled in the program that would provide financial assistance and mentorship throughout his time in community college. He said the program set him on a path to earn his associate’s degree, move on to a four-year college, and then enroll in law school at DePaul University. Without the program, he said he never would have thought he would be qualified to attend law school and become an attorney.

It set up a straight trajectory,” Diaz said. It taught me skills that I still use to this day, and I didn’t have to worry about how my books would be paid off or how I’d get to school because ASAP covered everything.”

Getting into and attending college is increasingly seen as the ticket to success in the United States. Policymakers and higher education experts have worked to ensure that more people can enroll in college and that they are able to pay for it. But completing college and earning a degree is a fundamental component of future success, and currently, the national six-year completion rate is just over 60 percent. In other words, two out of every five students who start at a two-year or four-year college will not earn a degree. The likelihood of completion is especially low for students of color and students from low-income families. 

From our inception in 2007, we understood what the value of a credential and a degree unlocks in terms of the full range of benefits that higher education affords,” said Christine Brongniart, the executive director of CUNY ASAP, explaining how the program sees college completion as a ticket to securing gainful employment and ultimately economic mobility.”

The model really is the epitome of valuing completion as a primary focus,” she added.

Advocates and educators agree that it’s essential for students to finish college, but programs like CUNY ASAP that have proven to work are often expensive to start up and institutions across the country have struggled with how to pay for them. 

Resources are scarce, and the kind of real fiscal investment that innovations and models like ASAP require is a front-end investment to ensure you have the range of staffing and dedicated supports to students in place,” Brongniart said. There’s no real way to skimp on the model.”

2 out of 5

Number of students starting at a two-year or four-year college who will not earn a degree

Now, there might be an answer. In April, the Biden administration announced its American Families Plan, a package of economic proposals introduced alongside the infrastructure package, which includes a proposed $62 billion grant program to invest in evidence-based programs to improve completion rates at colleges and universities that serve high numbers of low-income students. Though the package doesn’t specify how the money would be used, advocates say this commitment to helping students stay in and complete college — the first of its kind from the federal government — would be transformative for higher education.

It’s really exciting,” said Kate Tromble, vice president at The Institute for College Access & Success. The president throughout his campaign had a free college platform plank, and that’s important but it’s only half the story. Free college gets you there, it doesn’t get you through. So it was really exciting for us to see a focus both on how we make it more affordable and how we put the money toward what we know already exists, which is a pretty robust universe of programs that have evidence that they can help with persistent credit accumulation and college completion.”

The Tide is Turned’

The American Families Plan still has to work its way through Congress, but if at least a portion of the federal money were to become available for evidence-based college completion efforts, Tromble said students would greatly benefit. The America’s College Promise Act, proposed by Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin to be a blueprint for Biden’s proposal, includes a Student Success Fund grant program.

Legislation like that would mean that institutions would really be able to dig into this work,” Brongniart said. It’s really a signal that the tide is turned and there’s now a much more concrete commitment to using public dollars in ways that very explicitly benefit all students.”

Advocates say the federal commitment will be essential in making sure that states can model college completion programs off the models known to be successful, like CUNY ASAP, which meets students’ needs, whether it’s helping them academically, connecting them with affordable childcare or giving them a MetroCard so they can get to class. The program pairs students with advisors, who help them navigate challenges at home or in the classroom.

Kelly McManus, director of higher education for Arnold Ventures, called the program the gold standard” given the research that shows that it nearly doubles three-year graduation rates compared to students that were not offered ASAP in a randomized control trial.

With funding support from Arnold Ventures, the core elements of the program have been replicated in community colleges in other states including Ohio, West Virginia, New York and California.

We’re confident that it is as effective in other implementation contexts, and we continue to try to build that evidence base,” Brongniart said. We’ve built a solid footing to show that the ASAP model can translate and be just as impactful, and can be modified slightly and adapted for local contexts and be just as effective.”

While many of the replications are still in their infancy, the one in Ohio is already showing signs of success. In Ohio, results from a randomized controlled trial show that ASAP nearly doubled three-year graduation rates, mirroring the impacts achieved in the original CUNY program, according to social policy research organization MDRC, the independent evaluator of the program.

We’ve built a solid footing to show that the ASAP model can translate and be just as impactful, and can be modified slightly and adapted for local contexts and be just as effective.
Christine Brongniart Executive director of CUNY ASAP

CUNY ASAP is something to hold up and draw attention to, not just for the size of the impacts but also the fact that it’s now been replicated at three colleges in Ohio,” said Alex Mayer, director for postsecondary education policy at MDRC. That’s pretty unusual in education and social policy. Often we’re looking at things that are found to be successful in an initial evaluation, but in subsequent evaluations, the size of the effect diminishes or the impacts aren’t replicated.”

Following the Evidence

CUNY has also experimented with expanding its ASAP program to four-year colleges. Much like ASAP, the ACE program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is designed to help students complete their academic degree on time. Erin Crossett, an evidence-based policy manager at Arnold Ventures, said that ACE looks much like the program it’s modeled off.

The main ingredients are all there,” she said. It requires full-time enrollment, it provides tuition support, it provides financial incentives, it provides mentorship and advising, and it helps students determine what they want their degree to be so they are on a pathway to completing the necessary coursework on schedule.”

Interim results from a randomized controlled trial show that in the first two years, students offered ACE saw a 17 percentage point increase in being on track to graduate in four years, relative to students who were not offered to participate in ACE. Students participating in the program earned more credits and a higher GPA than students at the college who were not offered ACE. Crossett said that while the results are preliminary, she’s heartened to see there have already been promising effects and hopes they translate into graduation impacts at four-year institutions.

In San Antonio, Project QUEST provides support and resources to help low-income individuals enroll full-time in occupational training programs at local community colleges. With a particular focus on the workforce, the program helps students to complete training, pass certification exams, and find well-paying careers. A randomized controlled trial found that the program increased participants’ annual earnings by an average of $5,490, or 20 percent, nine years after program entry.

Both ASAP and Project QUEST have strong evidence supporting their success, collected using randomized controlled trials, and have been evaluated by outside organizations, making them strong candidates for scale-up at other institutions across the country.

There’s really a lot of evidence in this area, especially compared to other areas of higher education and education social policy,” Mayer said.


Average amount of salary increase that Project QUEST participants experienced nine years after completing the program

Other programs, like Chicago-based One Million Degrees, a nonprofit organization that works with 10 community colleges to help students earn their degrees and launch careers, will require more study to know if they improve graduation rates. But Chief Executive Officer Paige Ponder said students are already feeling positive impacts. Charlene Brown, a 19-year-old Chicago community college student who aspires to be a nurse, said the program was a game-changer for her. They connected me with networking support and having a one-on-one coach was helpful because it just showed me that people can check on your wellbeing and actually care about you,” she said. Without One Million Degrees, my semester definitely would have been more strenuous.” An ongoing randomized controlled trial of One Million Degrees will answer the question of whether it helps more students graduate on-time.

A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity’

Higher education experts said the strong base of evidence supporting a number of the programs and their core principles makes them ideal for a federal investment. The successful programs all provide students with a counselor or case manager, use real-time data to track students’ progress, and use strategies to help students stick with their commitment to completing college. Many offer financial support or incentives and work with students across multiple years.

They all share similar characteristics. Everybody goes about it slightly differently, but there’s enough research out there that points us to how these are the fundamental things that need to be addressed,” Ponder said. To have all this money spent along those lines is going to be more impactful than without that guidance.”

For Arnold Ventures, the federal government’s commitment to support evidence-based programs could be transformational.

This feels like a once in a generation opportunity to invest in what works for students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds who have so often been underserved,” McManus said. If we want higher education to be a key for increasing equity and social mobility, we need Congress to come through with these investments.”


Arnold Ventures funds projects to understand problems and identify policy solutions.

Map of the U.S. made of Arnold Ventures icons