Accelerating the Associate Degree

March 19, 2009

An experimental City University of New York program, designed to graduate highly motivated community college students as soon as possible, is showing early signs of success.

The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), a $19.5 million city-funded project, began in 2007 with the goal of graduating at least 50 percent of an initial test cohort of 1,000 community college students in three years.

To participate in ASAP, students must be residents of the city, attend college full time and need no remedial coursework. The nearly 84 percent of students in the program who are eligible for state and federal financial aid have the remainder of their tuition waived by the system. In addition, all students receive free textbooks and Metrocards to cover transportation costs.

ASAP students take smaller courses that are grouped in blocks during the daytime. Program coordinators argue that this allows these students to take care of non-academic obligations more easily and form a sense of community with classmates. The students also receive intense personal advising and tutoring.

If system projections hold steady, the program could best its goal and graduate 60 percent of its 1,132-student cohort by September 2010 -- the three-year mark. By comparison, the system’s most recent three-year graduation rate for full-time, non-remedial students (who entered in the fall of 2004) was 24.6 percent.

Retention numbers are also promising. Last fall, the program retained 80 percent of its students from the first year to the second. A comparison group of non-remedial students in 2006 had a fall-to-fall retention rate of 59.7 percent.

John Mogulescu, the system's senior university dean for academic affairs, said there was “a bit of excitement” in response to these early results. Still, he cautioned that he “didn’t want to go overboard.” He noted that the true test of program is yet to come, when it attempts to bring similar success to less-prepared students.

Last month, the city approved $1.3 million more for the program to admit another cohort of 355 students. This time, however, the program will admit students who have an area in which they need remediation: reading, writing or math.

“Our expectation for this new cohort, given how we’ve done so far, is still a 50 percent graduation rate at the end of three years,” Mogulescu said. “Our ultimate goal, if the model is successful, is to expand it and raise graduation rates across the board, whether a student needs remediation or not.”

Though ASAP students have significantly higher retention and graduation rates than comparison groups of similar students, they have only slightly higher grades. At the end of the program’s first year, ASAP students earned an average of 25.8 credits with a grade point average of 2.6. Those in the comparison group (of full-time, non-remedial students after the 2006-7 academic year) earned an average of 24.7 credits with a grade point average of 2.4.

Donna Linderman, systemwide director of the program, said she would like to see the grade point average of ASAP students closer to 3.0. Still, she suspected that these grades probably relate to accelerated nature of the program.

“Even if you take a group of the best-prepared students at a community college, they still need a significant level of support,” said Linderman, dismissing the idea that the current cohort was self-selected for success. “These students are [exempt from remediation], yes. But, they’re still going to struggle.”

If anything, system officials believe the program attracts New York City students to college who would not have gone otherwise. This, they argue, makes the system’s experiment in new community college models worthwhile.

Maria Mattina, a 19-year-old ASAP student at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, said she would have dropped out if not for the program. Though she is not eligible for any financial aid, she said the free books and transportation helped her meet her budget. She also said that her close relationship with her counselor, and the guidance her counselor has given her, has helped her stay in college.

“In this economy, without support to help me get ahead, I would have just gotten a full-time job instead,” Mattina said. “This program just makes the college experience easier. There’s so much to stress about anyway that the little help this gives can help you go further in life.”

Robin Johnson, a 19-year-old at Borough of Manhattan Community College, said she would have been unable to attend full time and would probably have gone into debt to attend even part time without the program. She still maintains a job as a customer service representative at a nearby bank.

“One of my biggest concerns was that I didn’t know how I was going to pay for college,” Johnson said. “Without ASAP, I still probably would have gone to community college -- because it’s a lot cheaper -- but I would have taken out loans. ... It has made the transition from high school to college so much easier.”

Program officials agree that money is a major motivator for most of the students in the program -- some of whom have put aside other obligations in order to attend full time specifically to gain the extra financial support. The officials note, however, that this alone is not enough to encourage all students to earn their degrees faster.

John Davis, ASAP director at Bronx Community College, said that most of the students who have dropped out of his program report that they simply could not attend class full time because of work or family responsibilities. While his college’s program extends some of its advising to students who leave the program for this reason, he noted that these students are less likely to succeed.

“It is a stress to stay full time,” Davis said. “Still, it’s the perks of the program that help keep them. Does money motivate? Yes. But, there’s a point where some have to draw the line. Given the economic status of most of our students, however, there’s more of an impetus to do what you can to help yourself.”

Program officials admit the possibility that the program may be viewed as elitist by some students and faculty at the system’s community colleges. Though ASAP students do get benefits that most community college students do not, officials tell the students that they are no more important than their peers, and face the same challenges.

Richard Rivera, ASAP director at Kingsborough Community College, said he noted a “sense of entitlement” among the program’s participants at his college when it first began.

"When they went to get books for the semester, some of them would ask, ‘Do I get to be first in line?’ ” Rivera said -- noting that the students would already be getting the books free. “I think some reality set in when they had to wait in line just like everybody else. Throughout this program, we’ve always emphasized to our students that they are Kingsborough students first and foremost.”

Judging from the program’s latest projected graduation rates, most in the system are optimistic about its success. Those involved hope to farm out the program’s best aspects to the entire system and reach all students, even those who need remediation. At the moment, it is unclear if ASAP will survive beyond its next cohort because of budget problems. Most involved with the program just hope the experiment provides the system with a new set of best practices for the classroom.

Michael Rodriguez, ASAP adviser at Kingsborough, said he was not sure if the system could handle the financial burden of providing Metrocards, book money and tuition waivers to a large number of students on an annual basis for much longer. Still, he said he did think it could bring the program’s commitment to personalized advising to all of its students.

“Will ASAP, as it is now, be institutionalized?” Rodriguez asked. “That’d be really, really sweet. But, no, I don’t expect it. I, however, do expect other aspects at the heart of the program to be used elsewhere. The commitment to advising and student development needs to be part of the culture.”

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