We must get students on the fast track ASAP

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By and large, across Michigan and the country, community college completion rates are quite low. The good news is we are learning what it takes to substantially improve completion rates.

The gold standard is CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). The CUNY program was so successful that MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization based in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Oakland and Los Angeles, California, partnered with three Ohio community colleges to replicate ASAP.

The Ohio program was designed to address multiple barriers to student success simultaneously and to address them over three full years. The model included the following components as described by MDRC:

Student support
• Advising: The programs offer comprehensive advising from an adviser with a small caseload (about 125 students). Students were required to visit their advisers twice per month in the first semester and as directed based on need thereafter.
• Tutoring: The programs require students to attend tutoring if they were taking developmental (remedial) courses, are on academic probation, or were identified as struggling by a faculty member or adviser.
• Career services: The programs require students to meet with a campus career services staff member or participate in an approved career services event once per semester.

Financial support
• Tuition waiver: The programs provide a tuition waiver that covered any gap between financial aid and college tuition and fees.
• Monthly incentive: The programs offer a monthly incentive in the form of a $50 gas/grocery gift card, contingent on participation in program services.
• Textbook voucher.

Course enrollment
• Blocked courses and consolidated schedules: Seats are held for program students in specific sections of courses during the first year.
• First-year seminar: New students are required to take a first-year seminar (or “success course”), ideally with other program students, covering topics such as study skills and note-taking.

Requirements and messages
• Full-time enrollment: The programs require students to attend college full time during the fall and spring semesters and encourage students to enroll in classes in the summer.
• Taking developmental courses early: The programs encourage students to take developmental courses early in their time in college.
• Graduation within three years: The programs encourage students to graduate within three years.

The results? There has been a substantial increase in both graduation rates and the proportion of students transferring to a four-year university. Three-year graduation rates reached 35 percent compared to 19 percent for the control group. And 18 percent of the treatment group transferred to a four-year institution compared to 12 percent of the control group.

What about subgroups? MDRC writes:

“Effects were estimated for several subgroups of students. Of particular interest were effects for subgroups of students with different levels of academic preparation, specifically students who did and did not have developmental education requirements when they entered the study. The program led to increases in degree receipt for students with developmental education requirements that were about the same size as the increases for those without these requirements. … But the findings for students without developmental requirements confirm that more academically prepared students can also benefit from these types of services and support.

“Effects were also explored for several other subgroups of students, defined by college, gender, race, age, and whether a student had a high school diploma or equivalent, etc. For all the subgroups examined, the estimated effects on three-year graduation rates were large, positive and statistically significant, demonstrating that the program is effective for a variety of students."

What about costs? MDRC reports:

"The direct cost of the programs was $5,521 per program group member over three years, or $1,840 per year. This estimate includes $2,369 for administration and staffing, $1,517 for student services, and $1,635 for financial support. In total, after adding in the costs of educating more students (since the programs increased enrollment and the number of college courses taken), the colleges invested $8,030 more per program group member than they did per control group member. However, that investment also led to a large increase in degree receipt. Thus, the cost per degree earned for program group students was 22 percent lower than the cost per degree earned for control group students.”

I know 35 percent completion doesn’t sound so impressive. It still means that nearly two-thirds of the Ohio community college ASAP participants didn’t graduate in three years. But it is a substantial increase over 19 percent, and at a relatively low cost.

So the immediate question for both policymakers and community college administrators is “why don’t we immediately implement the ASAP strategy for all community college students?” And for that matter, for non-selective four-year colleges, as well. It is likely that these programs and services would substantially increase their graduation rates, as well. It sure seems like it is far past time to make ASAP a feature for all students in every Michigan college and university.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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