OPINION: A New York model helps community college students reach their goals

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As public confidence in the value of higher education wanes, state and national higher education leaders must do more to invest in programs that have demonstrated success at improving college completion rates and helping students find well-paying jobs.  

A good example is the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, at the City University of New York (CUNY). The ASAP model was designed in 2007 to address institutional barriers to student success, particularly for CUNY’s low-income students. ASAP students receive dedicated academic and career advising, generous financial aid to cover tuition and other expenses, flexible class scheduling with expectations for full-time enrollment and support services to help them balance family, work and personal commitments.

Hallmarks of the program are its financial incentives (in addition to the financial aid, CUNY ASAP students receive an unlimited NYC MetroCard as part of their benefits); an engaging advising model; and a sophisticated data management infrastructure. The program has served nearly 88,000 CUNY students since its inception and has nearly doubled the chances that these students will graduate with an associate degree within three years.

The program has significant economic rewards. For each additional ASAP associate degree, the public return is three times the investment because graduates earn higher wages, pay more in taxes and receive fewer social services. The graduates’ returns are even greater: For every dollar a student invests up front, they realize $12 through better employment options and higher wages.

Related:  Many community college students never earn a degree. New approaches to advising aim to reverse that trend

ASAP can, and should, be expanded to benefit hundreds of thousands more students. In 2015, CUNY applied the ASAP model to bachelor’s degree-seeking students through an academic support program known as ACE (Accelerate, Complete, Engage) with positive results similar to ASAP’s. CUNY has already replicated ASAP and ACE in 14 colleges and universities across seven states, with comparable results to the original ASAP initiatives. Even during the pandemic, the ASAP model continued to have a positive impact on student outcomes.

CUNY and Ithaka S+R, a not-for-profit research and consulting firm, worked together to design a strategy to further replicate ASAP around the country. If enacted, this strategy has the potential to increase the number of community college graduates by 50,000 or more in 10 years. 

The program nearly doubles the chances that a community college student will graduate with an associate degree within three years.

A core feature of the strategy is to invite state higher education system leaders to create ASAP replication programs in their states’ community colleges. Compared to incrementally expanding ASAP, the advantages of a state-level approach include consistency, efficiency and sustainability. Students in ASAP replications will have a common college experience even if they transfer to another participating community college within the state, and state-level coordination can increase the program’s efficiency through shared services and enhanced cross-college collaboration. Given ASAP’s relatively high upfront costs, state investment to sustain it over the long term is both essential and commonsensical, as the state reaps the benefits of increased graduation rates, an increased tax base and reductions in social services.

Related:  The college degree gap between Black and white Americans was always bad. It’s getting worse

The state and institutional leaders that have already replicated ASAP now constitute the ASAP|ACE National Replication Collaborative at CUNY, a group that will support change as more states and institutions choose to replicate ASAP in the future. 

CUNY ASAP’s track record proves that it’s possible to significantly boost the number of community college graduates nationwide. The ASAP approach works, andit’s cost effective. For state higher education system leaders looking to improve degree attainment, address persistent equity gaps and prove the value of higher education, the decision is easy. Statewide approaches to ASAP replication at community colleges ensure the program’s benefits will multiply and be sustained.

Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta is the director of Educational Transformation at Ithaka S+R and Katherine Giardello is the senior policy advisor at the ASAP|ACE National Replication Collaborative.

This story about improving college completion rates was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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