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CUNY’s ASAP Program Helps Students Graduate
Will It Scale?

Last week, Inside Higher Ed reported that the City University of New York plans to scale-up their Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, at six CUNY community colleges and three senior colleges that offer associate degrees. The most aggressive effort to expand ASAP will be at Bronx Community College, where all new full-time students will be automatically enrolled in the program.

One goal of the plan is to increase Bronx Community College’s three-year graduation rate from 11 percent to 50 percent. Of course, BCC is hardly the only community college that needs to improve its graduation rate. According to a 2014 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, only 39 percent of first-time college students who started at a two-year institution in the fall of 2008 graduated at either a two-year or four-year institution within six years and only 16 percent of the same group of first-time students graduated at a four-year institution within six years. The mean graduation rate is lower at urban community colleges such as CUNY’s: research cited by CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken indicates that 15 percent of students at such institutions graduate within three years.

ASAP is CUNY’s ambitious attempt at bucking that trend. Created in 2007, ASAP comprises several major components: “full-time enrollment, block scheduled first-year courses, cohort course taking, financial support, intrusive and mandatory advisement, a student-success seminar, career services, and tutoring.” The financial support includes a tuition waiver for the difference between a student’s financial aid package and the remaining cost, free MetroCards for public transportation, and free use of textbooks.

MDRC, a nonprofit research organization, is in the middle of a five-year evaluation of the program and released a three-year interim report in early 2015 titled “Doubling Graduation Rates.” In the experiment, students in need of one or two developmental courses at LaGuardia Community College, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and Kingsborough Community College were randomly assigned to either the treatment group, where students had the opportunity to receive ASAP services, or the control group, where students were offered traditional services.

The results are rather remarkable. Students in the treatment group earned 48 credits in three years, on average, while the control group averaged 39 credits. Forty percent of students in the treatment group earned a degree within three years, 18 percentage points more than the control group. And 25 percent of the students in the treatment group went on to a four-year school, compared to 17 percent in the control group. Although costs increased, the cost per degree was lower in the treatment than the control group because there were so many more graduates among those enrolled in ASAP.

While it is easy to get excited about the results of MDRC’s study, optimism about CUNY’s planned scale-up—from 4,000 to 25,000 students by 2018, at a cost of $42 million—should remain tempered.

One key feature of the program is that advisors have a small caseload. To keep the caseload small, CUNY will have to hire and train six times the number of advisors, across multiple institutions.

With such a large staff expansion, there is also the risk, identified by psychologist Robert Sternberg and others, that initial program effects achieved by highly motivated initial adopters don’t persist with less-motivated new hires. Maintaining the quality of the program will require careful selection of staff and a disciplined approach to training and oversight.

It will take effort to overcome these challenges, but they are not insurmountable. ASAP has demonstrated consistent and even improving results as it expanded to its current size: starting in 2012, total enrollment in ASAP in the fall term increased by about 1,000 students each year while the average cost per student gradually decreased. With that track record, extending the benefits of ASAP to even more students seems feasible, and would be well worth the investment.

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