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Picking Up the Pace of the Completion Agenda

July/August 2015

By Karla Hignite

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Colleges and universities are crafting innovative solutions to the challenges of degree attainment.

Research during the past decade underscores a growing divide in American social strata reflected by, among other measures, critically low college completion rates in the United States, especially among low-income, first-generation, and minority populations. And the warnings of that research are sobering, not only for the individuals whose future earning potential and career advancement are greatly curtailed, but also for our nation’s ability to compete and lead in the global economy. 

Even before the Great Recession—which has sharpened the focus on existing income and educational inequality—higher education, nonprofit, and governmental organizations have been pledging their commitment to expand student access and expedite completion of postsecondary degrees and industry credentials. The coalitions, and the reach and results of their endeavors, are impressive: 

In a statewide initiative intended to bump up the number of students attending the state’s two-year colleges, Tennessee launched Tennessee Promise, which pledges to all eligible Tennessee high school seniors two years of free tuition at any of the state community colleges, colleges of applied technology, or other institutions offering associate degrees. Launched in fall 2014, the program is funded from the state’s lottery reserve fund, currently totaling more than $300 million. 

Many more programs and partnerships are focused nationally and locally on not only degree attainment, but also on the underlying barriers that put higher learning out of reach for too many. In the end, individual higher education institutions and systems that are on the front lines of serving students—at whatever level of proficiency they bring with them to the classroom—are the entities that will have the greatest impact on increasing student success and degree completion. 

What follows is a sampling of initiatives—broad and granular—that have emerged from the midst of daily administrative challenges and serendipitous opportunities. These examples are neither exhaustive nor isolated, and many more innovative ideas are being tested on campuses across the country. What they collectively represent is leadership that is determined to not only bring students in with the promise of a brighter future, but to keep them moving through the rigors of higher learning and across the finish line.

Streamlined Start, Faster Finish

CUNY’s student success efforts boost confidence and proficiency and keep students on the move.

The City University of New York (CUNY) is making a big impact on degree completion and student success in the Big Apple. Among the programs focused on helping students get off on the right foot are CUNY Start and CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). 

Start Here

CUNY Start is a pre-matriculation program specifically tailored to students with significant developmental education needs in reading and writing and/or math. 

Students are provided an opportunity to defer matriculation for one semester to take part in an intensive program geared toward building skills proficiency and conceptual understanding of these core subjects so that they have the confidence and stamina to tackle a broader college-level curriculum, explains Donna Linderman, university dean for student success initiatives and ASAP executive director. Those enrolled in the program full time attend five days a week for a total of 25 hours per week. Students exhibiting significant need in one subject only (reading/writing or math) can attend part time for 12 hours per week. 

During the semester, students have two opportunities to test progress by retaking the CUNY assessment test in reading and writing, or taking a standardized exit exam in math. At the 12-week mark, students who require additional improvement return for another three to five weeks of intensive study. “While some students at the end of the semester may still show some remedial need, in every case they have made significant gains and enter their program of study much better prepared to succeed and aware of the level of work required,” says Linderman. 

The program has proven highly successful. Of those who have enrolled in CUNY Start, 68 percent had remedial needs in reading and writing and in math, and 31 percent had remedial needs in two skills areas. Yet, 50 percent of all full-time students have completed the program, with no further remedial needs. 

Consistency is key, notes Linderman. All those who teach in CUNY Start have spent a semester training under a lead teacher and have participated in extensive programwide professional development. The same highly structured curriculum is used across all nine CUNY colleges that currently offer the program. 

Advisement is another essential part of the program and is geared to preparing students to navigate campus culture and helping them think through choices about a degree major and long-term education goals, explains Linderman. “We have been running this program long enough to track the data and see that once CUNY Start students matriculate, they take and earn more credits, hold a higher GPA, and are retained at higher rates compared to CUNY students with similar remedial needs who do not participate in the program.” 

Another plus: Because CUNY Start is offered through the system’s continuing education side of the house, students don’t touch their financial aid that first semester. CUNY Start is supported by a combination of state and city funding, which allows CUNY to keep costs to students at a very low fee of $75 for the semester-long program. 

Additional support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation funds special projects, such as a new pipeline program to support foster care youth to move through CUNY Start and into ASAP. And, funding from the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation is devoted to the development of an eight-week summer math program modeled on the semester-long CUNY Start math course.

CUNY Start classes are capped at 25 students. The program launched in 2009 with a pilot of 150 GED students. For 2014–15, a total of 3,600 students took advantage of the program, which to date has served 10,000 students. 

Get There 

CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), offered since 2007, grew from an initiative of then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Center for Economic Opportunity. He sought partners to address issues of poverty for three specific populations: children under the age of five, adults ages 16 to 24, and the working poor. Then CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein seized on the opportunity to target two of the three populations by addressing one of his primary concerns: low community college graduation rates. Prior to ASAP, only about 24 percent of CUNY’s community college students graduated in three years.

“With the launch of ASAP we aimed to double our three-year graduation rate, and we have,” says Linderman. Data from the first five cohorts reveal that 52 percent of ASAP students are completing their coursework within three years. 

In developing the program, CUNY leaders sought to combine proven interventions from across the country known to make a difference in student success and to bundle them together into one comprehensive program, explains Linderman. 

Key ASAP features include: 

For their part, students enrolled in the program must attend a summer preparatory institute prior to matriculation. They must agree to study full time, meet regularly with their adviser, participate in career development activities, and speak with an adviser before dropping classes. Students with developmental needs must take any required remedial courses immediately and continuously, as part of their scheduled studies, and attend weekly tutoring. 

“We try to highlight these requirements for students as opportunities more so than as obligations, but we do want students to understand their commitment,” says Linderman. Extensive surveying of ASAP students reveals that the financial assistance is critical, and of the services provided, advisement is hands-down identified as the most valuable ASAP service, notes Linderman. 

Launched with 1,100 students, the program has expanded to 4,300 students during the 2014–15 academic year, and has served 8,700 students to date. Plans are to expand to 13,000 students by fall 2017, confirms Linderman. The college offers ASAP students regularly scheduled courses and charges normal CUNY tuition, costs of which are first covered by need-based financial aid in the form of federal Pell grants and New York State’s tuition assistance program. “If there is any gap between tuition and fees and a student’s financial aid award, the college waives the balance,” says Linderman. “Most ASAP students are very low-income and receive the full amount of financial aid, which means there is very little tuition waived.” On average only 13 percent of ASAP students have a tuition gap need, and of those who do, the average amount waived is $773, notes Linderman.

“We are very grateful for the funding we receive from the city and state and from generous private funders, as well as incredible support from Chancellor Milliken and our college leadership,” says Linderman. While such a comprehensive program does require significant upfront investment, CUNY’s cost-benefit analysis shows that the program is highly cost-effective, once retention and graduation rates are factored in. “ASAP students are much more likely to graduate, and to graduate with increased earning potential,” argues Linderman. “As we continue to track ASAP graduates, we’re also finding that the vast majority—almost 75 percent—continue their studies toward their bachelor’s degree.” 

Linderman believes that CUNY’s nationally recognized model is highly transferable to other institutions and systems. Key to the success of a program such as ASAP are the financial and advisement components, stresses Linderman. “This will require reallocation of existing resources or identification of new monies; but, however you get there, the potential is high for a huge return on investment.” While short-term efforts might provide a bump in student retention and performance, comprehensive long-term interventions are required to move the graduation needle, she argues. 

Dovetailing on the success of ASAP, CUNY has plans for a test pilot this fall that will expand the current program to students pursuing a bachelor’s degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The pilot is being supported by the Robin Hood Foundation—New York City’s largest poverty-fighting organization. Another program modeled after ASAP is CUNY’s Graduate Success Initiative (GSI), offered in partnership with the New York City Human Resources Administration and its College Opportunity to Prepare for Employment program. 

GSI is a yearlong, structured academic program designed to support public assistance recipients who are within 30 credits of completing their associate’s degree. The program offers services similar to those of ASAP, including consolidated scheduling, advisement, and a peer community connection. To date, about 300 students have enrolled in GSI, with 56 percent of students completing their degree within one year. “This suggests the opportunity to insert a comprehensive program even at the midpoint to help students complete their associate degree,” says Linderman.

Partners in Completion

Starbucks and Arizona State University create a program to remove financial barriers to degree completion.

A new Starbucks–ASU College Achievement Plan is making it easier for employees to work and study. From collaborative discussions between Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Arizona State University President Michael Crow emerged a first-of-its-kind program to remove financial barriers to degree completion. The partnership between ASU and Starbucks provides full tuition reimbursement to eligible Starbucks employees, whom the company calls “partners.” 

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan officially launched in mid-October 2014 with the start of ASU’s Fall B session. At present, about 2,000 Starbucks partners are enrolled through the program, and in less than a year, three partners have already earned the remaining credits they needed to graduate. 

As the program was originally conceived and rolled out, focus was placed foremost on students who had already earned 56 or more college credits, placing them at junior or senior standing at ASU. Earlier this year, Starbucks and ASU announced important changes to the plan, including full benefits of the tuition scholarship and reimbursement regardless of prior credits. A second change involved the reimbursement schedule. Originally students would receive reimbursement each time they completed 21 credit hours, which for some students could span several semesters. Partner feedback indicated that the reimbursement cycle was too long. Now all partners are reimbursed, at the end of each semester of completed coursework, the difference in tuition not covered by the ASU scholarship and other need-based assistance. 

Among the operational issues to hammer out were program structure and how to introduce the program to ensure it would deliver a great experience for partners, notes Ryan Chase, assistant vice president for ASU Online. “We organized around various work streams, including student experience, financial aid and billing, technology infrastructure and support, and reimbursement reporting.” The latter entailed developing procedures for reporting back to Starbucks the portion of tuition reimbursements due to partners each semester.

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.


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