American students are enrolling in college in record numbers, but they’re also dropping out in droves. Barely half of those who start four-year colleges, and only a third of community college students, graduate. That’s one of the worst records among developed nations, and it’s a substantial drain on the economy. The American Institutes for Research estimates the cost of those dropouts, measured in lost earnings and taxes, at $4.5 billion. Incalculable are the lost opportunities for social mobility and the stillborn professional careers.
There’s a remedy at hand, though, and it’s pretty straightforward. Nationwide, universities need to give undergraduates the care and attention akin to what’s lavished on students at elite institutions.
If that help is forthcoming, graduation rates more than double, according to several evaluations of an innovative program at the City University of New York’s community colleges.
Over the past month, CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has garnered hosannas in the media for its package of comprehensive financial resources, student support systems and impressive graduation rates. The social policy leader MDRC is conducting a multiyear random-assignment study of ASAP and, in a just-released report, describes it as “unparalleled in large-scale experimental evaluations of programs in higher education to date.”
Nearly 90 percent of students who attend a top-ranked university earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. While these undergraduates may well be among the best and brightest, they also get kid-gloves treatment. If they run into trouble, an army of helpmates stands at the ready. “From moving day as a freshman through graduation and beyond,” Harvard assures its students, “our advisers are here to help and support you at every step.”
The situation is entirely different for most undergraduates, especially poor and minority students. All too often they’re steered to schools where they receive little if any support in mastering tough courses, decoding arcane requirements for a major, sorting out life problems or navigating the maze of institutional requirements. Graduation rates at these so-called dropout factories, especially those in urban areas that largely serve low-income, underprepared minority populations, are as abysmal as 5 percent.
Where a student goes makes all the difference. Consider a Chicago public high school graduate with a grade-point average of 3.5. If she enrolls at Chicago State University, a Washington Monthly investigation shows, the odds against her finishing are high — the school’s six-year graduation rate hovers at 20 percent. Her chances measurably improve if she attends the University of Illinois at Chicago, where the completion rate is 57 percent. And if she goes to Northwestern, just a few miles away, 93 percent of her classmates will graduate.
Six years ago, CUNY decided to confront the high dropout rate at its community colleges with the ASAP initiative. The results are stunning: 56 percent of the first two cohorts of more than 1,500 students have graduated, compared with just 23 percent of a comparable group that didn’t have the same experience. What’s more, most of those graduates are currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
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The program for community-college students addresses money issues, which are typically students’ top concern, by covering tuition that’s not paid for by federal and state grants, as well as paying for public transit and giving students free use of textbooks, saving them upward of $900 a year. To help balance the demands of college with work, life and family obligations, students take their classes in a consolidated course schedule (morning, afternoon or evening).
While the added dollars make a big difference, students consistently report in individual profiles found on the CUNY ASAP website that the personal touch — biweekly seminars and one-on-one advising — is crucial. The ASAP adviser for Desiree Rivera, a LaGuardia student, became her life coach. “I am completely able to let my guard down around her and discuss both personal and academic struggles,” Ms. Rivera wrote on her profile. “Her support has played a major role in my success as an ASAP student.”
An evaluation last year by the economist Henry M. Levin, a co-director of Teachers College, Columbia University’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education, and Emma García, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., concludes that although ASAP isn’t cheap — the program costs, on average, $3,900 per student each year — it’s a solid investment for New York City’s taxpayers. Dr. Levin and Dr. García calculate that the total lifetime benefits — from increased tax revenues as well as savings in crime, welfare and health costs — are a whopping $205,514 per associate degree graduate.
These results have persuaded CUNY to triple the size of the community college program to 4,000 students by fall 2014, and the system is considering expanding ASAP to its other schools. But this strategy merits a nationwide rollout, for it promises a significant increase in the number of educated workers that the nation badly needs.
David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System.” This article was originally posted on the New York Times, in which Kirp is a contributing opinon writer.