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CUNY's ASAP Program: Lessons for Adult Learners?

ACCN Blog Social policy research firm MDRC’s recent evaluation of the City University of New York (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) for Developmental Education Students has been making waves in the world of higher education since its February release – and with good reason. The program has demonstrated unparalleled results, nearly doubling the graduation rate for its participants.* Notably, the evaluation focused on low-income students with developmental education needs. Neither the study’s authors, nor the numerous experts who have commented on the results, can identify another program with anywhere near this magnitude of impact on community college graduation rates.

The evaluators are careful to point out that ASAP is made up of a number of components and that the results can only be attributed to the program as a whole, rather than any particular feature.  Though ASAP includes no pedagogical changes—to developmental or regular courses—it does include a comprehensive array of student supports as well as a full-time enrollment requirement. The range of services provided by ASAP is outlined in the report, and includes dedicated advisors with a reduced case-load and financial incentives such as a monthly metro card (tied to participants’ attendance at required programmatic activities – for example, advising sessions), free textbooks, and coverage of any gaps in tuition and fees not covered by financial aid. A cost-effectiveness analysis estimated that the program costs about $14,000 more per student than routine college services, yet ultimately generated a lower cost per degree given the dramatic rise in three-year graduation rate.

For those who serve adult learners, this program model’s cost and full-time requirement likely leads to some trepidation – and it’s true that the majority of the evaluation’s sample was composed of younger, first-time college students. However, the program was effective for the adult learners that did participate. In the evaluation sample 23 percent were 23 or older when they entered the study, 26 percent did not live with their parents, 31 percent were employed, and 15 percent had at least one child. In fact, one of the individual success stories highlighted in the report is that of a father in his mid thirties who participated in ASAP exclusively through night classes and was able to complete his associate degree in two years and transfer to a four-year college.

Another key piece of information to note is that the “full-time” requirement of the program was in many cases achieved through courses taken during an intersession. For example, participants were able to take nine credits during a full-length fall semester and an additional three credits during a six-week winter intersession and could be considered full-time. ASAP students were heavily encouraged to take courses during summer and winter intercessions and enrolled in them at significantly higher rates than their peers. With the extensive use of intersessions, even busy students (among students in their first year, nearly half held a job, on average working around 26 hours per week) were able to accumulate credits at an accelerated pace.

For those still wary of the significant investment such a program would require, the full length report includes a helpful look at the individual program components which may have been particularly influential in the program’s success based on information collected in surveys and interviews with participants and staff (p. 85-88). Though speculative, these suggestions may offer a valuable starting point for programs looking to learn from ASAP’s success, but facing time, staff, or budget constraints. In the meantime, we will all be watching to see if expansion and replication efforts can generate similarly positive results.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the program "raised graduation rates for its participants by 18 percent." In fact, the study found an 18 percentage point increase (40 percent for the ASAP group vs. 22 percent for the control group), which works out to an 82 percent increase, a near doubling of the graduation rate.

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