Student success program produces strong results again—and cost concerns

Hoping to replicate enrollment and completion gains achieved by the City University of New York (CUNY) system, three Ohio community colleges recently piloted CUNY’s Accelerated Student in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative. Even after adapting certain program elements for local circumstances, the Ohio institutions saw strong results: three-year graduation rates nearly doubled, and transfers to four-year colleges increased by 50 percent, Community College Daily reports.

However, two of the three colleges have opted not to continue ASAP, citing cost concerns. The retreat from a program with such strong outcomes “suggests that financial sustainability is an important part of the long-term viability of comprehensive student success programs,” writes a program evaluation published by the nonprofit education and social policy research organization MDRC.

ASAP emerges as a potential national model

CUNY’s ASAP program has drawn widespread attention in recent years. Under the program—which CUNY has now expanded to include some 25,000 students, up from 1,300 in 2011—students attend college full-time and receive free tuition, transportation, and other wraparound services. ASAP also features an intensive advising and tutoring model, relying on “a relatively low ratio of 150 students per advisor,” compared with typical ratios as high as 750 students per advisor at community colleges, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Observers have questioned whether ASAP’s approach is replicable, especially given CUNY’s unique setting in New York City. In addition to the Ohio experiment, Westchester Community College, Nashville State Community College in Tennessee, and several California community colleges are exploring or implementing their own versions of ASAP.

The three Ohio community colleges that implemented the model—Cuyahoga Community College, Lorain County Community College, and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College—had slightly different student populations than those in the CUNY ASAP evaluation and made several adjustments to suit local circumstances. For instance, rather than offering public transportation cards like CUNY, the schools provided gift cards for food and gas. Each school also managed its program independently, compared with CUNY schools, whose program is managed at the system level.

Clear attainment, transfer benefits

Even with program adaptations, the three Ohio colleges saw promising results. Thirty-five percent of students enrolled in the ASAP-style program graduated in three years, compared with 19 percent of students in a control group. After three years, 18 percent of program participants had registered at a four-year college, compared with 12 percent of the control group. Participating students’ credit attainment increased, while self-reported stress levels decreased.

“The fact that the Ohio programs achieved similar results to CUNY ASAP… demonstrates that the ASAP model can be effective in varying localities and institutional contexts and for different student populations,” MDRC concludes.

‘The news is good and bad’

However, when it comes to the Ohio colleges’ ASAP experience, “the news is good and bad,” Matt Reed, vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, wrote on his blog for Inside Higher Ed. Two of the colleges decided to end their programs—which were initially supported by philanthropy and served only certain subsets of students—and preserve only certain elements, citing unsustainable costs.

According to MDRC, the Ohio programs’ direct cost figured out to $1,840 per student, per year for administration and staffing, student services, and financial support. The colleges also shouldered additional costs associated with increased enrollment and number of courses taken. On the other hand, for ASAP participants, the cost of attaining a degree was 22 percent lower than for the control group.

Even at CUNY, where ASAP receives direct funding from New York City, program expansion has revealed the challenge of hiring and training enough advisors to enable the low student-to-advisor ratio that is central to the program’s success.

Noting that his college, Brookdale, would need to increase its operating budget by 25 percent to offer ASAP to every student, Reed writes that “we can’t separate [ASAP’s] success from its cost.” He calls for increased funding to support similar programming, adding that “new money is precisely what made ASAP’s gains possible.”

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