MDRC in the News

Higher Ed’s Most Successful Failure

Washington Monthly


Four years ago, Christine Abate was driving the car she had just bought with $4,000 in cash to get to and from classes at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, when another driver T-boned her, sending her car careening front end first into a set of boulders. Her vehicle was badly banged up, but fortunately she wasn’t. “The doctors were surprised I walked away from the accident,” Abate recalled.

She was lucky in another way: She had a strong support system at her college. Unexpected life events, like suddenly being without a car, are a major reason students drop out of college. At Cuyahoga Community College, known locally as Tri-C, Abate was part of an experimental program called Degree in Three that was designed to help students like her stay on track. In return for agreeing to attend school full-time—going part-time is another factor linked to increased dropout rates—students in the program received tuition assistance for any costs not covered by their other financial aid, essentially making college free. They were also given $50 monthly gift cards to defray the cost of gas and groceries, and received more individual attention from academic advisers—a resource most students at financially strained community colleges sorely lack…..

…..Prompted by a report from a New York City mayoral commission on alleviating poverty, the City University of New York system began thinking ambitiously about how to increase graduation rates. CUNY devised a program that would wrap together all of the interventions that had shown a modest positive effect on graduation rates. To alleviate cost stressors, the program would provide free Metro passes, free books for classes, and waivers for any tuition that remained after financial aid. It would also assign additional academic advisers, with lower caseloads, to meet with the students, twice a month in their first semester and then once a month after that. From focus groups, researchers had learned that students also drop out when they can’t reconcile their work schedule and class schedule, so students in the program got priority enrollment. Lastly, because of the drawbacks of part-time attendance, students would be required to attend full-time, with the goal of graduating in three years. The resulting program was named CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP.

It worked. Students in the program graduated in three years at nearly double the rate of other CUNY students attempting to attend full-time—40 percent compared to 22 percent. Students in the program also transferred to four-year colleges at a higher rate than students not in the program. And the program was evaluated with an uncommon degree of rigor. MDRC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group, ran the randomized control trial, with 896 students participating, and produced a 155-page report of the results.

The study made a splash. The New York Times wrote up the findings, and its editorial board highlighted them, too. The Obama administration cited the CUNY program’s success, calling on all community colleges to take similar steps as part of their broader proposal to increase the number of Americans getting degrees. “I’ve not seen any other interventions with as large effects as CUNY ASAP,” Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, told me. “It really stands alone.” Funds to continue the program were added to the New York City mayor’s budget…..

…..The question remained, though, could this work elsewhere? Community colleges across the country, most of whom operate on fine margins, weren’t rushing to implement it. A bevy of funders, such as Ascendium Education Group, the ECMC Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Arnold Ventures, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation (the latter four of which have given grants to this nonprofit magazine), chipped in funds to replicate the program elsewhere, for a trial period of three years. Again, it would be rigorously evaluated by MDRC. In 2014, three Ohio community colleges signed up to host the program: Lorain County Community College, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, and Cuyahoga Community College…..

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