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A group of three students studying at a table with the help of a professor standing behind them.


When it comes to increasing student success, higher ed institutions have launched innumerable “initiatives.” A large part of this initiative deluge has to do with declining public funding for higher ed, which then causes institutions to seek more and more grants that are tied to implementing more and more initiatives. However, if the ultimate goal is to increase completion rates for students—rates that have stagnated according to recent reports—then we must assess the merits of each of these many initiatives, so we can not only say yes, but, just as importantly, no.

I do think we can divide this initiative deluge into two streams. The first stream involves those initiatives that seek to accelerate the student through college course work. These initiatives include policies around Advanced Placement, dual/concurrent enrollment and credit for prior learning. Other acceleration initiatives focus on shortening course lengths and largely eliminating remedial coursework (developmental education) in English and math, among other reforms. The logic behind acceleration is that it supposedly improves access to higher education while shortening time to completion, thus saving the student money and putting an income-boosting degree in their hands sooner.

The other stream consists of what I would call “complete support” initiatives. These are initiatives that do not focus on compressing or altering curriculum; rather, they focus on making robust improvements to key student support pillars: advising, counseling, tutoring, financial aid and assistance for housing, food, transportation and childcare. The idea here is to more directly address the obstacles that keep students from completing college. And the irony is that when colleges invest in complete support initiatives, more students across different demographics actually complete their degrees in a timelier fashion as a consequence.

In terms of the acceleration stream, evidence does show that those who participate in programs such as Advanced Placement and dual enrollment are more likely to attend college and to persist. However, evidence also shows that such programs replicate, and perhaps even help drive, achievement gaps. Working with a trove of national data, the authors of “College Acceleration for All? Mapping Racial Gaps in Advanced Placement and Dual-Enrollment Participation” detail persistent racial/ethnic equity gaps in participation in acceleration programs.

This is especially concerning as it seems that dual-enrollment programs, through which high school students enroll in college courses, adversely affect traditional-age college students. A first-of-its-kind study from the Community College Research Center found that non-DE community college students perform more poorly when they are in class with DE students. Moreover, this effect is “most pronounced among community college students who are within the lowest and middle range of the prior academic performance distribution.”

Often, proponents of acceleration initiatives point to the fact that a college degree leads to higher earnings, and so it is especially crucial for underserved students to get through college as quickly as possible in order to maximize said earning potential. In other words, acceleration is an equity imperative. However, let us imagine that, in the near future, we could build an “acceleration portal” through which students could walk and instantly come out the other end with their degree and the knowledge/skills that comes with it.

As a consequence, would socioeconomic inequality be ameliorated? Of course not. The only reason a college degree gives greater earnings is because degrees are unequally distributed (mostly along socioeconomic lines); the correlation between a college degree and higher earnings should not be used to bolster acceleration initiatives done supposedly on behalf of underserved students, especially as some of those initiatives are being shown to reproduce, and even drive, further inequality.

Yet across the national landscape, acceleration initiatives are winning out. Programs such as dual enrollment and Advanced Placement are well established, and reforms that seek to largely eliminate remedial coursework in two-year colleges are quickly sweeping the nation. There is, however, a ray of hope for complete support initiatives.

In 2021, after President Biden announced plans to invest $62 billion in evidence-based reforms to boost college completion, the think tank Third Way had the audacity to ask, in anticipation of such a windfall, “What if CUNY ASAP Was Replicated From Coast to Coast?”

For those who aren’t familiar with CUNY ASAP, although advertised as an acceleration initiative, it is the ultimate complete support initiative. For example, as detailed in a 2015 evaluation report from MDRC, students who are enrolled in ASAP work with a dedicated adviser with a small caseload and also have a dedicated career adviser and dedicated tutoring services. In their first few semesters, they take seminars on setting goals and study skills, and, if necessary, they take remedial coursework in English and math early.

ASAP students also receive a tuition waiver that covers any gap between financial aid and college tuition and fees, free MetroCards for use on public transportation, and free use of textbooks. The consequence of this support is acceleration: the MDRC study found the program nearly doubled graduation rates within three years. Instead of making it easier or faster for students to receive degrees with the hope this will dent inequality, we must dent inequality first so the underprivileged student can devote the time to earn the degree.

Unfortunately, what was once envisioned as a $62 billion college completion fund was severely scaled down: in its stead we have the Postsecondary Student Success Program, funded by Congress to the tune of $45 million in 2023. However, what is worth noting is how the first round of grantees are spending their money. Although acceleration initiatives are represented, the bulk of the efforts are focused on building student support: improving tutoring, counseling, tuition aid, transportation and even childcare. It is worth keeping a close eye on how these colleges perform, then, as perhaps they may be part of a turning tide.

If colleges really want to move the needle on completion, they need to prioritize these complete support initiatives. These programs work across demographics because they more directly target the effects of inequality itself. If you don’t target the effects of inequality—and finding ways for students to spend less time learning does not target said effects—then those inequalities will simply replicate themselves (for example, the above study on AP and dual-enrollment programs finds that the states with higher participation rates in those programs also tend to have larger racial enrollment gaps).

Of course, one might argue that the choice between acceleration and complete support initiatives does not have to be an either-or situation, that colleges can, and should, do both. However, these two types of initiatives send two very different messages to students, staff and faculty: when colleges invest in acceleration, the message is that college itself is the obstacle. (Could this be part of what negatively affects traditional-age community college students who are in classes with dual-enrolled students?)

Conversely, when colleges invest in support, the message is that college is a worthy endeavor in and of itself and the institution wants to give all students the time and opportunity to delve into it, and to learn.

John Schlueter is an instructor of English at Saint Paul Community and Technical College in St. Paul.

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