How to Double Graduation Rates, ASAP
by Alexandros M. Goudas January 2017 (Updated version)
Originally published as “An Excellent Return on Investment” (14 July 2014)
Almost every single recent article written by developmental education and community college reformers supports one fundamental philosophical approach to higher education: cutting equals success. All sorts of cuts have been studied—cut placement scores, cut requirements for classes, cut time through remediation, cut classes by combining them, cut classes by removing them, cut instructors by modularizing or using online courses, cut funding, cut remediation completely—and surprisingly, most of these reforms are supported by data which claim to show subsequent increases in student success.
Now, I am quite sure that some cuts are necessary and that a few of these reforms work in the short-term. But cutting time and money as a philosophy runs contrary to what we know about education. Education takes a great deal of time, money, and human connections. For community college students especially, a good education requires an understanding of the significant barriers, and then it requires an investment of time and money that address those barriers.
The City University of New York (CUNY) must have realized this fact when they conducted a randomized, controlled study—the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP)—in which they targeted barriers and provided comprehensive financial and time-intensive support for a cohort of low-income community college remedial students, most of whom were students of color.
You can read more about the details here and here, but let me summarize the results: A group of remedial students were required to enroll in block schedules full-time, to meet with counselors two times a month, to take a non-credit first-year seminar, to have tutoring, and to complete remedial courses early on in their education. In addition, they were given free tuition over and above what their financial aid offered, and they received free transportation, free textbooks, and several free social events. All told, the program costs the college about $5000 per student per year over and above what is already spent.
The results of this investment are astounding. The comparison group (a group of similar students who did not receive any of this extra support but who started at the same time as the ASAP students) graduated at a rate of 21% after three years. The ASAP group graduated at a rate of 48%. ASAP more than doubled CUNY’s three-year remedial graduation rate. Not only that, but one study on ASAP shows a return on investment of 300 to 400 percent for taxpayers (Levin & Garcia, 2013). Millions of dollars come back to our society when we invest time and money in our college students up front.
Not only did they run the intervention on remedial students, but they also ran the same ASAP program for nonremedial students, with very similar results. The control group (again, students who started at the same time as the ASAP students but who did not receive the intervention) graduated at a rate of 29% after three years. However, the ASAP student graduation rate was 60%, again, over double the control group’s.
The reason this program works with all types of community college students is because it addresses the actual barriers that at-risk students face, regardless of remedial status, most students at community colleges are at-risk. Problems with transportation? Free Metro cards. Problems with money? Books and other expenses over tuition are covered. Problems with navigating the difficult terrain of college registration? Learning communities and monthly advising sessions (with low student-adviser ratios) are required. Problems with homework? Tutoring is available and required. Problems with college-level skills? Remediation is provided and required to be completed first.
If remediation were a barrier, which is what many reformers are repeatedly claiming, then these at-risk students would not have graduated at a rate of over double the control group. They would have floundered in those remedial courses and not persisted. Clearly remediation is not the barrier to graduation.
I have yet to read about a study in higher education which can claim anything close to these results, especially one which uses cuts as its basis. If positively impacting the completion agenda and generating a high return on investment are what we as a society are looking for, then ASAP is a model worth replicating. Perhaps it may change higher education’s entire philosophy.
Kirp, D. L. (2014, January 8). How to help college students graduate. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/09/opinion/how-to-help-college-students-graduate.html
Levin, H. M., & Garcia, E. (2013). Benefit-cost analysis of Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) of the City University of New York (CUNY). New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education. Retrieved from http://cbcse.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Levin_ASAP_Benefit_Cost_Report_FINAL_05222013.pdf
Scrivener, S., Weiss, M. J., Ratledge, A., Rudd, T., Sommo, C., & Fresques, H. (2015). Doubling graduation rates: Three-year effects of CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) for developmental education students. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from http://www.mdrc.org/sites/default/files/doubling_graduation_rates_fr.pdf
Significant increases in associate degree graduation rates: CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). (2016). New York: City University of New York Office of Institutional Research and Assessment (OIRA). Retrieved from http://www1.cuny.edu/sites/asap/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2016/06/ASAP_Program_Overview_Web.pdf