The City University of New York system has become an incubator of experiments to improve student success, especially for students who are first generation or low income.
Armed with positive returns, CUNY is helping to expand those nationally praised programs around the system and to other colleges.
For example, CUNY will bring the Accelerate, Complete, Engage (ACE) program, which was created at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to Lehman College, which is located in the Bronx. The program gives students additional academic supports and financial incentives such as tuition waivers, textbook assistance and public transportation subsidies. When the ACE program began in 2015, its goal was to increase the four-year graduation rate for students in the program to at least 50 percent from 24 percent. In May, 59.2 percent of the first ACE students graduated from the college.
"We're seeing unprecedented persistence and graduation rates at John Jay," said Donna Linderman, CUNY's associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. "We're doubling the national average in the four-year public space, and we think we're really on to something." The national four-year graduation rate for public colleges is 33 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
The ACE program is built off another successful venture. CUNY officials developed ACE as an attempt to apply the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) model to four-year colleges. Researchers have found that community college students who participate in ASAP are almost twice as likely to earn an associate degree.
"If we're not learning from juggernauts like ASAP, then we're not serious about our mission, and John Jay is serious," said Dara Byrne, associate provost for undergraduate retention and dean of undergraduate studies at John Jay. "ACE going to Lehman means they're serious about being a place of opportunity for students coming out of the Bronx."
Byrne said the system is a learning lab where college leaders conduct experiments and follow each other's results.
"That's what keeps us from getting stale and running interventions that don't work," she said. "It breathes new life and keeps you focused on the students we're supposed to serve."
Escape From New York
Other colleges outside New York City are replicating ASAP to produce their own, similar results. Three Ohio community colleges have seen graduation-rate bumps ranging from 7.9 percent to 19.1 percent since starting their own ASAP programs. In addition, Westchester Community College, which is part of the State University of New York system; Tennessee's Nashville State Community College; and a few California community colleges have either started or are exploring their own ASAP programs.
"CUNY has become a font of innovation," said Tom Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. "CUNY has innovative programmatic approaches that have been rigorously evaluated, and we feel confident they make a change in student outcomes."
But what makes the system unique is that these programs have national relevance, Brock said.
That's rare, he said, as often initiatives that work in one place won't work if replicated in other colleges, systems or states.
"It's hard to make those lessons work, but ASAP, CUNY Start and others are getting national attention," he said.
Expanding these programs isn't easy.
A brief released last week by CCRC examined CUNY's ASAP expansion at Bronx Community College. Although CUNY has expanded ASAP to 25,000 students from around 1,300 in 2011, the BCC expansion is unique in its scale. The program's enrollment is about 5,000 students this year, or about half of the college's total enrollment.
"At BCC, maintaining that adviser-to-student relationship was critical at the beginning, and it's a hallmark of the ASAP program," said Maria Cormier, a senior research associate at CCRC. But the college found it challenging to hire and train the advisers it needed to handle the expansion.
The ASAP program works well in part because it relies on a relatively low ratio of 150 students per adviser to give students more individualized attention. Typically, these ratios can be as large as 750 to one at two-year colleges, according to CCRC.
But with a goal to increase ASAP enrollment to about 5,000 students, the college struggled with hiring and training advisers needed to maintain the target student-adviser ratio.
As the caseloads of each hired adviser increased, they began to feel overwhelmed.
"As the caseloads approached 150, advisers began … triaging students based on their level of need. One adviser reported conducting 'fast food' advising, or walk-in meetings for groups of students with similar concerns," according to the paper.
The ASAP program was small prior to expansion, Cormier said. And BCC had to create new ASAP staff positions such as recruiters, associate directors and peer mentors to handle its growth. Peer mentors, for example, were former ASAP students who were hired to help provide one-on-one support to students.
"These problems were solved, but as a lesson, you can't go into an expansion of a single program without thinking through the practice and structures of an organization," Cormier said.
Funding also is a challenge to expansion.
Linderman wants to see ACE and ASAP grow within CUNY, but the ACE program didn't receive additional funding in the governor's budget. ACE costs about $4,000 more per student per year compared to the #39 for a typical full-time student. To help make up the difference, the system has relied on outside financial support from nonprofit groups and foundations such as the Robin Hood Foundation as well as funding from the NYC mayor's office.
But John Jay students who are not participants in ACE lack the luxury of waiting for the program to receive additional funding, Byrne said. As a result, the college has taken components of the ACE program and used them in other places to help students who don't have access to the program. For example, instead of providing financial assistance for textbooks, the college now uses open educational resources in general education courses.
"My ideal would be for the state to see what is gained by a program like ACE, but that will take some time," Byrne said. "So, we're taking pieces of it and scaling some elements so some students will continue to benefit from what we've learned over the years."
Guttman Community College
Another CUNY program on the brink of wider expansion is Guttman Community College's Ethnographies of Work course. Guttman features an experimental learning curriculum and graduation rates that are nearly double the national average -- the college's three-year rate is 45 percent.
The Ethnographies of Work course is required for first-year students and takes students to different workplaces and businesses to help them research careers and understand the culture of work. Students are trained as ethnographers to examine workplace issues, for example, how gender differences affect workplace environments, while exploring their own career paths.
"The research shows we need to embed career development into the curriculum," said Niesha Ziehmke, associate dean for academic programs and planning at Guttman.
Guttman has started working with colleges in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Massachusetts, including New Jersey's Bunker Hill Community College, to help other two-year institutions add the course, she said. And CUNY is mulling whether to expand its use beyond Guttman.
"So many community college students work, and we can use that experience to build their skills," Ziehmke said. "But that's something we all should be paying attention to … Being able to push this into places in and beyond CUNY feels a little like a sea change."