• Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Title

Good News and Bad News on ASAP

Funding works.

January 28, 2020
 
 

The MDRC just issued a report on the results of imitating CUNY’s ASAP program at three community colleges in Ohio. The news is good and bad.

ASAP is a wildly successful model pioneered at CUNY in which students are required to attend college on a full-time basis. In return, they get free tuition, free books, free transportation, intensive advising, intensive tutoring and all manner of what we usually call “wraparound services.” It nearly doubled the graduation rate, with lower costs per graduate than the status quo ante.

As with many programs developed in a particular location -- especially one as distinctive as New York City -- people elsewhere often raise a question about portability. Yes, it worked in Brooklyn, but could it work elsewhere? The MDRC report looks at the results of adapted versions of ASAP at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cuyahoga Community College, and Lorain County Community College.

The good news is, it worked. In fact, it worked admirably. Graduation rates increased significantly and across the board for demographic subgroups. Credit attainment increased. Students' self-reported stress levels decreased. Even better, some of the site-specific adaptations that had to be made didn’t seem to do any damage. For example, the CUNY model includes free MetroCards, which enable students to ride the subways for free; the idea is to remove transportation as a barrier. At the Ohio sites, as well as at most sites around the country, that’s not an option. But when the Ohio sites went with gift cards that could be used for gas and food, they got similarly good results.

The CUNY program also relies in part on block scheduling, in which students in the program are handed their schedules. That didn’t happen at the Ohio sites, but again, the results suggested that you could make great gains without it.

The fact that the program could be adapted for places without subway systems, and in which there isn’t always critical mass for block scheduling, is encouraging. It appears to be portable.

I was struck by the intensiveness of the required advising. Advisers had loads of about 125 students apiece, and students were required to talk to their advisers at least twice a month for the first semester. Students in remedial classes were required to attend tutoring, and all students were required to attend career-advising sessions.

Students quoted in the report cited the intensive advising as a key to their success. For students whose parents didn’t go to college, just navigating the system can be a challenge; having someone there to help them find their way is a huge plus.

The report also found, and this was a pleasant surprise, that many students who probably would have attended part-time, left to their own devices, were able to adapt to full-time enrollment with the right supports. Get cost burdens out of the way, and they’ll happily step up.

Which brings me to the bad news. It’s really expensive. While it decreases the cost per graduate, it significantly increases the cost per student. The report cites an additional cost to the college of slightly over $1,800 per year, per student, assuming three years to finish. At that level, for Brookdale to offer ASAP to every current student, we’d need to add roughly another $20 million to our annual operating budget. For context, the entire operating budget now is about $81 million. We’d have to increase our operating budget by a quarter and then keep going over time.

The Ohio sites did it with significant philanthropic support and by applying the program only to subsets of their populations. (The others were treated as control groups.) That’s reasonable -- I would have done the same thing, given the chance -- but it raises the question of what to do when the outside funding goes away.

New Jersey is looking at performance-based funding for community colleges, but without any mention of new money. New money is precisely what made ASAP’s gains possible. Before we talk about performance-based funding, we need to talk about funding-based performance. In the absence of that, PBF is simply punitive. (“You’re struggling because you’re underfunded. Let’s take some of your money away! That should help …”) ASAP worked because it was funded.

To the extent that a model like ASAP helps to build support for increased funding, I can only applaud. We can’t separate its success from its cost. Apparently you can substitute gas cards for MetroCards; that’s great. But you can’t separate funding from performance, whether in Ohio, New York or anywhere else. We know how to turn dollars into results; now we just need the dollars.

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