In 2015, Ohio imported a successful program used to help community college students in the City University of New York (CUNY) system persist in school and complete a degree in three years or less. A new policy brief from the nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research organization MDRC—also an implementation partner in both the CUNY and Ohio programs—looks at the first data from Ohio.

The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) began in 2007 with a suite of supports and requirements for CUNY students. Based on research showing where students’ ambitions and abilities were mismatched, these efforts included incentivizing full-time enrollment; encouraging students to take remedial courses immediately rather than putting them off to focus on whatever credit-bearing courses are available; providing comprehensive support services such as intensive advising and financial support; and offering blocked courses (seats held open in specific courses that college officials deem necessary for participants) and condensed schedules. Six years of data on the CUNY program can be found here.

The Ohio iteration, implemented at three independent and geographically separated community colleges—Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cuyahoga Community College, and Lorain County Community College—was designed similarly to the New York program. The Ohio Department of Higher Education coordinated the effort, and financial support was provided by a range of national and Ohio-based philanthropic organizations. Participating students had to be degree-seeking, willing to attend full-time, majoring in degree programs that could be completed in three years or less, and Pell Grant eligible. A lottery determined which students entered the program (806 participants) and which comprised the control group (695 non-participants). Students in the control group had access to the usual suite of support services the colleges provided but not the more-intensive support given students in the treatment group.

Students in the treatment group not only had access to a suite of additional services and supports provided by the program, but also faced some important additional requirements. They were required to enroll full-time in at least their first two semesters and were encouraged and supported to attend during the summer as well. Outside financial support covered any tuition amounts above students’ Pell Grant awards, as well as textbooks and class fees. Students could also earn multiple monthly financial incentives—in the form of gift cards for groceries or gasoline—for participating in program-provided activities, such as advisory meetings and career-development activities. Meetings with advisers were required twice a month in the first semester but became optional (while still strongly encouraged) for most students in further semesters. Students who were deemed at risk of dropping out of the program maintained stricter advisory requirements for a longer period of time. Full-time enrollment also became optional for some students in later semesters.

After two years, the treatment group outperformed the control group in all measured outcomes: persistence in school, persistence of full-time enrollment, credit accumulation, and graduation. All program effects were large, significant, and increased over the four semesters under study. But it is important to keep things in perspective. Credits earned by program group students showed a 37 percent increase over control group students at the end of two years, although that amounts to only eight additional credits. Similarly, after two years, 19 percent of the program group had completed a degree or credential, compared to just 8 percent of the control group.

That impressive increase still represents a small slice of the total number of students, and we have no data showing how close the remaining students in either group are to graduation in the final year of the program. Additional data will, hopefully, tell the tale.

MDRC researchers note that the program effects in Ohio largely outstripped those in the CUNY system. Three things stand out which could explain the difference. First, roughly half of the students in the Ohio study (both program and control) were nontraditional as compared to about a third at CUNY—meaning they were adults long out of K–12 education—many with jobs and family obligations and some without a high school diploma—looking to return to formal education to better their standing in life. The financial incentives appeared to have played an outsized role in supporting these students’ ability to persist and finish—as compared to young people just out of high school—and perhaps led to the better outcomes observed in Ohio versus CUNY.

Second, the financial incentives as a whole cost less and went further in Ohio than they did in New York City, leading to a leaner and more efficient program with superior outcomes.

Third, the independent nature of the Ohio community college sites allowed for a degree of individual adaptation that does not appear to happen in the CUNY version of the program. Block scheduling, for example, appears to have been a particular weakness for the schools with large numbers of nontraditional students whose work and life commitments precluded a more traditional weekday/daytime class schedule. Being able to flex this aspect of the CUNY program and move courses to fit the students’ schedules seems to have paid dividends in Ohio.

There’s a lot to the story for something appearing so simple at the outset. But the big picture is important: Common-sense academic supports, advising, and incentives can increase students’ odds of college persistence and degree completion. That’s not a bad lesson for high schools to learn either.

SOURCE: Colleen Sommo, et. al., “Doubling Graduation Rates in a New State: Two-Year Findings from the ASAP Ohio Demonstration,” MDRC (December 2018).

Jeff Murray comes to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute from a five-year stint at School Choice Ohio. At SCO, Jeff was involved with getting the word out to parents around the state about school voucher availability - directing postcard campaigns, call centers, and advertising campaigns over the last few years. Tens of thousands of parents across Ohio received the news…

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