Having a college degree is increasingly important in the U.S. labor market, and workers with a degree earn substantially more, on average, than those without. Recently there has been an unprecedented national focus on boosting the stubbornly low graduation rates of students in community colleges. Community colleges serve millions of the nation’s undergraduates, but only about one-third of those students graduate within five years. Graduation rates are even lower for students who enter college without the math, reading, or writing skills required for college-level courses and thus need to take developmental (remedial) courses. In addition, most college students take longer to graduate than is considered “normal.” For example, a survey of students who started at a public two-year college found that only 4 percent graduated with an associate’s degree within two years.
Educators have tried many reforms to help improve the success rates of community college students. Most of the reforms have been short term, lasting only one or two semesters, and have addressed no more than a few barriers to student success. The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) is an ambitious and promising exception. Operated by the City University of New York (CUNY), which serves over half a million students annually and is the largest public university system in the country, ASAP provides a comprehensive array of services and supports over a three-year period to help more students graduate and to help them graduate sooner. The program aims to simultaneously address multiple barriers to student achievement over multiple semesters, and is one of the most aggressive efforts in the country to improve the success rates of low-income students.
In 2007, CUNY, with the support and funding from the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), launched ASAP at all six CUNY community colleges. ASAP requires students to attend college full time and provides them with a rich array of supports for three full years, including a tuition waiver that covers any gap between a student’s financial aid and tuition and fees, special seminars and block-scheduled classes, enhanced advising, career services, free MetroCards for use on public transportation, and free use of textbooks. In 2009, CUNY, in partnership with CEO and CEO’s evaluators, conducted an internal evaluation of ASAP and found very promising effects for participating students. At that point, CUNY decided to expand the program and commissioned MDRC to conduct an external study to test ASAP’s effects using a random assignment design, the “gold standard” methodology in program evaluation.
MDRC’s study focuses on three CUNY community colleges: Borough of Manhattan, Kingsborough, and LaGuardia. For the study, ASAP targets low-income students who need one or two developmental courses to build their reading, writing, or math skills. The study compares ASAP with regular services and classes at the colleges. MDRC’s report provides results for the first two years of the three-year program. Key findings include effects on:
- Semester-to-semester retention. After the first semester, ASAP consistently increased the likelihood that students would enroll in each subsequent semester by 8 to 10 percentage points. The effect on enrolling in shorter intersessions (winter or summer) was even larger.
- Credits earned. ASAP increased the average number of credits earned over two years by 7.6 credits (37.9 for ASAP students vs. 30.4 for control students), a 25 percent increase that represents 13 percent of the college-level credits required to earn a degree.
- Graduation. ASAP increased the proportion of students who earned an associate’s degree in two years by 5.7 percentage points (14.5 percent for ASAP students vs. 8.7 percent for the control group). It’s important to note that these students had to fulfill developmental education requirements before earning at least 60 college-level credits to graduate. In fact, data from the first cohort of students in the study shows that this effect grows substantially by the two-and-a-half-year mark: 33.3 percent of program group members had earned an associate’s degree, compared with 18.2 percent of control group members — for an impact of 15.1 percentage points.
Based on results from their own internal study of early cohorts of students and the promising early effects from the random assignment evaluation, CUNY committed to substantially expanding ASAP beginning in fall 2012. By fall 2014, CUNY aims to serve over 4,000 students at the six participating community colleges — three times more than were served in fall 2012.