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Will a Student Support Program Continue Its Success When Scaled?

The City University of New York program ASAP, which dramatically increased graduation rates, is going national after capturing the attention of researchers, institutional leaders, and policymakers

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A New York program that dramatically increased community college graduation rates is going national.

The pilot program, launched 12 years ago, is capturing the attention of researchers, institutional leaders and policymakers. Its impact stretches from the first cohort of 1,286 students in six colleges to now 25,000 students in nine colleges, as of 2018-19.  

Now, with funding contributions from Arnold Ventures, program replications are piloting in community colleges in Ohio, California, and New York, and the first foray into four-year colleges began last year at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“In higher education, (the program) really is in a league of its own, from an evidence perspective,” says Erin Crossett, evidence-based policy manager at Arnold Ventures.

After three years of use at CUNY, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) nearly doubled students’ three-year graduation rates relative to students in a control group. This gap between ASAP students and control students narrowed at the six-year mark, but graduation rates still remained 10 percentage points higher for students enrolled in the program, relative to students in the control group.

MDRC’s independent evaluation of the program — conducted using an experimental design — notes that “ASAP’s effects are the largest MDRC has found in more than a decade of research in higher education.”  

The wraparound system of higher education support was born out of a call to improve economic mobility and opportunity among low-income residents of New York City. The thinking was: Give an adult a college degree, and you give them a pathway out of poverty.

At that time, the community colleges within the City University of New York were struggling to help adults who enrolled there graduate: Less than 4 percent of students completed an associate degree in two years, and 13 percent did in three years. In six years, one in five students earned a degree.

The low graduation rates stemmed in large part from the multitude of challenges students faced outside of the classroom — from transportation to child care — as well as issues of academic readiness.

So the New York mayor’s office and CUNY partnered to create and fund the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP — a holistic approach to student support in higher education with an emphasis on comprehensive advising, multiple forms of financial assistance, and clearly defined course pathways and schedules.

What we hear from students is that it’s that relationship that makes the difference.
Marisa Vernon White Associate provost, enrollment management and student success, Lorain County Community College in Ohio

Experts say the extensive advising element is likely a key ingredient to ASAP’s success. Advisers are in constant contact — twice monthly, at first — with students, ensuring they are in appropriate courses, know how to navigate challenges in class or at home, and are planning for the long term. Students are assigned advisers as soon as they enroll, and they keep that adviser for the duration of their collegiate career. ASAP advisers serve a maximum of 150 students; the average community college adviser has 441 students.

“Advisers really are what’s magic about [this model],” said Marcia J. Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College in Ohio, which launched an ASAP-inspired pilot called Students Accelerating in Learning, or SAIL, in 2014. “It’s a commitment to serving students in a different way.” 

At LCCC, students meet monthly with their advisers but often communicate via text messaging in between. Advisers connect students with resources they might need to balance everyday life with schooling, and they ask how career counseling is going or how students are managing their time. But perhaps most of all, the advisers are an adult mentor on campus who wants to see students succeed.

“What we hear from students is that it’s that relationship that makes the difference,” said Marisa Vernon White, associate provost, enrollment management and student success at LCCC.

Both CUNY and LCCC have also sought to address financial barriers by extending financial aid beyond tuition assistance to include transportation and textbook expenses.

In New York, for example, students receive a free MetroCard for the city’s subway and bus system and $500 per year, to start, for textbooks. (If more than half is used in the first semester, students can be eligible for more.) The hope is that by covering these expenses not often captured by other grants and scholarships, students can work less and dedicate more attention to their courses.

And finally, the model is focused on helping students earn a degree quickly, since time-to-completion is inversely related to graduation rates. When students choose a major, they receive a clearly delineated pathway that maps out course sequences semester by semester, with the goal of graduating in three years or fewer. Students also receive priority registration and are encouraged to take courses over traditional summer and winter breaks, which both keeps them on track toward graduation and maintains personal momentum.

Beyond graduation impacts, an unanswered question is whether ASAP leads to improved economic outcomes, such as earnings, once participants are out of school. Longer-term study follow-ups are needed to answer this question.

It is something that researchers and institutional leaders are watching and monitoring. And it is something that, so long as success continues, will have important implications for higher education funding at the state and federal levels.

“If these multiple replications pan out, and we see sustained graduation and earnings impacts, the next step would be to try to unlock federal funding streams to incentivize institutions to adopt and scale ASAP,” Arnold Ventures’ Crossett says.