- ASAP was well implemented. The program provided students with a wide array of services over a three-year period, and effectively communicated requirements and other messages.
- ASAP substantially improved students’ academic outcomes over three years, almost doubling graduation rates. ASAP increased enrollment in college and had especially large effects during the winter and summer intersessions. On average, program group students earned 48 credits in three years, 9 credits more than did control group students. By the end of the study period, 40 percent of the program group had received a degree, compared with 22 percent of the control group. At that point, 25 percent of the program group was enrolled in a four-year school, compared with 17 percent of the control group.
- At the three-year point, the cost per degree was lower in ASAP than in the control condition. Because the program generated so many more graduates than the usual college services, the cost per degree was lower despite the substantial investment required to operate the program.
Now that firm results are in, across several different institutions, CUNY is confident it has cracked the formula for getting students to the finish line.
“It doesn’t matter that you have a particularly talented director or a president who pays attention. The model works,” said John Mogulescu, the senior university dean for academic affairs and the dean of the CUNY School of Professional Studies. “For us it’s a breakthrough program.”
MDRC and CUNY also claim that “cracking the code” means that other schools can benefit, as described earlier in the article:
“We’re hoping to extend that work with CUNY to other colleges around the country,” said Michael J. Weiss, a senior associate with MDRC who coauthored the study.
Unfortunately . . .
If you read the report itself, the data doesn’t back up the bold claims in the executive summary and in the media. A more accurate summary might be:
For the declining number of young, living-with-parents community college students planning to attend full-time, CUNY has explored how to increase student success while avoiding any changes in the classroom. The study found that a package of interventions requiring full-time enrollment, increasing per-student expenditures by 63%, and providing aggressive advising as well as priority access to courses can increase enrollment by 22%, inclusive of term-to-term retention. At the 3-year mark these combined changes translate into an 82% increase in graduation rates, but it is unknown if any changes to the interventions would affect the results, and it is unknown what results would occur at the 4-year mark. Furthermore, it is unclear whether this program can scale due to priority course access and effects on the growing non-traditional student population. If a state sets performance-funding based on 3-year graduation rates and nothing else, this program could even reduce costs.
Luckily, the report is very well documented, so nothing is hidden. What are the problems that would lead to this alternate description?
- This study is only for one segment of the population, those willing to go full-time, first-time students, low income, and one or two developmental course requirements (not zero, not three+). This targeted less than one-fourth of the CUNY 2-year student population where 73% live at home with parents and 77% are younger than 22. For the rest, including the growing working-adult population:
(p. 92): It is unclear, however, what the effects might be with a different target group, such as low-income parents. It is also unclear what outcomes an ASAP-type program that did not require full-time enrollment would yield.
- The study required full-time enrollment (12 credits attempted per term) and only evaluated 3-year graduation rates, which is almost explains the results by itself. Do the math (24 credits / year over 3 years minus 3 – 6 as developmental courses don’t count for degree credit) and you see that going “full-time” and getting 66 credits is likely the only way to graduate with a 60-credit associate’s degree in 3 years. As the report itself states:
(p. 85): It is likely that ASAP’s full-time enrollment requirement, coupled with multiple supports to facilitate that enrollment, were central to the program’s success.
- The study created a special class of students with priority enrollment. One of the biggest challenges of public colleges is for students to even have access to the courses they need. The ASAP students were given priority enrollment as the report itself states:
(p. 34): In addition, students were able to register for classes early in every semester they participated in the program. This feature allowed ASAP students to create convenient schedules and have a better chance of enrolling in all the classes they need. Early registration may be especially beneficial for students who need to enroll in classes that are often oversubscribed, such as popular general education requirements or developmental courses, and for students in their final semesters as they complete the last courses they need to graduate.
- The study made no attempt to understand the many variables at play. There were a plethora of interventions – full-time enrollment requirement, priority enrollment, special seminars, reduced load on advisers, etc. Yet we have no idea which components lead to which effects. From the report
(p. 85): What drove the large effects found in the study and which of ASAP’s components were most important in improving students’ academic outcomes? MDRC’s evaluation was not designed to definitively answer that question. Ultimately, each component in ASAP had the potential to affect students’ experiences in college, and MDRC’s evaluation estimates the effect of ASAP’s full package of services on students’ academic outcomes.
- The study made no changes at all to actual teaching and learning practices. It almost seems this was the point to find out how we can everything except teaching and learning to get students to enroll full-time. From the report
(p. 34): ASAP did not make changes to pedagogy, curricula, or anything else that happened inside of the classroom.
What Do We Have Left?
In the end this was a study on pulling out all of the non-teaching stops to see if we can get students to enroll full-time. Target only students willing to go full-time, then constantly advise them to enroll full-time and stick with it, and remove as many financial barriers (fund gap between cost and financial aid, free textbooks, gas cards, etc) as is feasible. With all of this effort, the real result of the study is that they increased the number of credits attempted and credits earned by 22%.
We already know that full-time enrollment is the biggest variable for graduation rates in community colleges, especially if measured over 4 years or less. Look at the recent National Student Clearinghouse report at a national level (tables 11-13):
- Community college 4-year completion rate for exclusively part-time students: 2.32%
- Community college 4-year completion rate for mixed enrollment students (some terms FT, some PT): 14.25%
- Community college 4-year completion rate for exclusively full-time students: 27.55%
And that data is for 4 years – 3 years would have been more dramatic simply due to the fact that it’s almost impossible to get 60 credits if you don’t take at least 12 credits per term over 3 years.
What About Cost Analysis?
The study showed that CUNY spent approximately 63% more per student for the program compared to the control group. The bigger claim, however, is that cost per graduate is actually lower (163% of the cost with 182% of the graduates). But what about the students who don’t graduate or transfer? What about the students who graduate in 4 years instead of 3? Colleges spend money on all their students, and most community college students (60%) can only go part-time and will never be able to graduate in 3 years.
Even if you factor in performance-based funding, using a 3-year graduation basis is misleading. No state is considering funding only for 3-year successful graduation. If that were so, I have a much easier solution – refuse to admit any students seeking less than 12 credits per term. That will produce dramatic cost savings and dramatic increases in graduation rates . . . as long as you’re willing to completely ignore the traditional community college mission that includes:
serv[ing] all segments of society through an open-access admissions policy that offers equal and fair treatment to all students
Can It Scale?
Despite the claims that “the model works” and that CUNY has cracked the formula, does the report actually support this claim? Specifically, can this program scale?
First of all, the report only makes its claims for a small percentage of students that are predominantly young and live at home with their parents – we don’t know if it applies beyond the target group as the report itself calls out.
But within this target group, I think there are big problems with scaling. One of which is the priority enrollment in all courses, including oversubscribed courses and those available at convenient times. The control group was at a disadvantage as were all non-target students (including the growing working adult population and students going back to school). This priority enrollment approach is based on scarcity, and the very nature of scaling the program will reduce the benefits of the intervention.
I have Premier Silver status at United airlines thanks to a few international trips. If this status gave me realistic priority access to first-class upgrades, then I would be more likely to fly United on a routine basis. As it is, however, I often show up at the gate and see myself #30 or higher in line for first-class upgrades when the cabin only has 5-10 first class grades available. The priority status has lost most of its benefits as United has scaled such that more than a quarter of all passengers on many routes also have priority status.
CUNY plans to scale from 456 students in the ASAP study all the way up to 13,000 students in the next two years. Assuming even distribution over two years, this changes the group size from 1% of the entering freshman population to 19%. Won’t that make a dramatic difference in how easy it will be for ASAP students to get into the classes and convenient class times they seek? And doesn’t this program conflict with the goals of offering “equal and fair treatment to all students”?
Alternate Ledes for Media Coverage of Study
I realize my description above is too lengthy for media ledes, so here are some others that might be useful:
- CUNY and MDRC prove that enrollment correlates with graduation time.
- Requiring full-time enrollment and giving special access to courses leads to more full-time enrollment.
- What would it cost to double an artificial metric without asking faculty to change any classroom activities? 63% more per student.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
I’m all for spending money and trying new approaches to help students succeed, including raising graduation rates. I’m also for increasing the focus on out-of-classroom support services to help students. I’m also glad that CUNY is investing in a program to benefit its own students.
However, the executive summary of this report and the resultant media coverage are misleading. We have not cracked the formula, CUNY is not ready to scale this program or export to other colleges, and taking the executive summary claims at face value is risky at best. The community would be better served if CUNY:
- Made some effort to separate variables and effect on enrollment and graduation rates;
- Extended the study to also look at more realistic 4-year graduate rates in addition to 3-year rates;
- Included an analysis of diminishing benefits from priority course access; and
- Performed a cost analysis based on the actual or planned funding models for community colleges.
By Phil Hill
- And this article comes from a reporter for whom I have tremendous respect. [↩]