Higher Ed’s Most Successful Failure

Why a proven reform to boost community college graduation rates can’t get traction.

Four years ago, Christine Abate was driving the car she had just bought with $4,000 in cash to get to and from classes at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, when another driver T-boned her, sending her car careening front end first into a set of boulders. Her vehicle was badly banged up, but fortunately she wasn’t. “The doctors were surprised I walked away from the accident,” Abate recalled.

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She was lucky in another way: She had a strong support system at her college. Unexpected life events, like suddenly being without a car, are a major reason students drop out of college. At Cuyahoga Community College, known locally as Tri-C, Abate was part of an experimental program called Degree in Three that was designed to help students like her stay on track. In return for agreeing to attend school full-time—going part-time is another factor linked to increased dropout rates—students in the program received tuition assistance for any costs not covered by their other financial aid, essentially making college free. They were also given $50 monthly gift cards to defray the cost of gas and groceries, and received more individual attention from academic advisers—a resource most students at financially strained community colleges sorely lack.

For Abate, the program made a huge difference. She stayed in school, finagling various ways to get to campus, at one point renting a car. She paid for the rental and other living expenses by juggling several part-time jobs—at a nursing home, a hospital, and in people’s homes as a health aid. Most of all, she credits her advisers for helping her stay in school. “Not only were they emotionally supportive and understanding of how stressful it is to be a college student, they were also there for personal life and personal struggles,” Abate told me. Other than her advisers, she said, “I didn’t have anyone tell me, ‘You’re doing a great job. We’re here for you. Good job getting an A on that test. You’re smart.’ I didn’t have that.” Her advisers became her personal boosters. When she applied for jobs, she listed one of her advisers as her reference. 

In December 2019, she graduated with an associate’s degree in nursing. That same month, she took her state nursing certification exam, and in February of this year started working in a Cleveland-area hospital, just as the COVID-19 crisis was about to heat up and her skills were most needed. She has since been accepted at Ohio University, where she hopes to earn a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. 

Abate’s experience with Degree in Three was no outlier. A carefully controlled evaluation of the program and similar ones at two other Ohio community colleges found that participating students were nearly twice as likely to graduate within three years as other students at those colleges who were also attempting to attend full-time but were not part of the program. Participating students were also more likely to transfer to a four-year college. Though the program costs more per student up front, it helped so many more students graduate that the overall cost per degree in the program was lower than it was for students attending the community colleges normally. 

In other industries, a new strategy that creates more products at a lower per-unit cost would be seen as a wild success. The company that developed it would quickly become a magnet for investors and a leader in the field—until their competitors all started copying the strategy. Not so, apparently, when it comes to American higher education. Despite rigorous evaluation, widespread acclaim from researchers, praise from Ohio Governor John Kasich, glowing write-ups in major newspapers, and powerful boosters in the philanthropic world, Degree in Three isn’t being rolled out at community colleges across the country, or even in Ohio. In fact, Tri-C itself discontinued the program in 2018 when its external funding ran out. A sister program at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College experienced the same fate. With the collapse of state revenues brought on by the pandemic, the status of the program at a third Ohio school, Lorain County Community College, remains uncertain, and a version in New York City, where the program originated, barely avoided having its budget slashed earlier this summer. 

In other industries, a new strategy that creates more products at a lower per-unit cost would be seen as a wild success. Not so, apparently, when it comes to American higher education.

The failure of America’s community colleges to replicate, or even maintain, successful programs like Degree in Three illustrates a profound but underappreciated flaw in the way this country allocates funds for higher education: Students who need resources the most get the least. Community college students generally have significantly less of the social capital—parents who attended college, for instance—that can help them navigate the college setting. They tend to have less developed study skills than affluent students who attended well-funded high schools. They also carry greater personal burdens, such as having to work multiple jobs. Since some adults enroll in community college classes without intending to get a degree, and students often transfer to different institutions, graduation rates for community college can be difficult to pin down. But reports suggest that just a third of students who enter these schools receive a degree or certificate within six years—a rate that would be considered scandalous if it were happening at elite institutions that more affluent students attend.

Yet community colleges generally have far smaller budgets to spend on students than four-year schools. Public four-year schools, whose student bodies tend to be wealthier and whiter, spend on average three times more per student each year than community colleges. Private four-year schools generally spend five times as much. As long as these basic inequities continue, even the most astonishingly successful innovations to boost community college success rates are likely to languish. 

Over the course of the 2000s, various community colleges and research groups experimented with interventions designed to help more students graduate. One effort, with the goal of providing the students a sense of community, grouped them into cohorts with whom they took all of their first-year classes. Another attempt involved giving students increased access to advisers. Yet another effort gave students scholarships, in addition to whatever financial aid they were receiving, and conditioned the funds on passing grades and consistent enrollment. But all of these efforts, and many others, saw relatively modest effects.

Prompted by a report from a New York City mayoral commission on alleviating poverty, the City University of New York system began thinking ambitiously about how to increase graduation rates. CUNY devised a program that would wrap together all of the interventions that had shown a modest positive effect on graduation rates. To alleviate cost stressors, the program would provide free Metro passes, free books for classes, and waivers for any tuition that remained after financial aid. It would also assign additional academic advisers, with lower caseloads, to meet with the students, twice a month in their first semester and then once a month after that. From focus groups, researchers had learned that students also drop out when they can’t reconcile their work schedule and class schedule, so students in the program got priority enrollment. Lastly, because of the drawbacks of part-time attendance, students would be required to attend full-time, with the goal of graduating in three years. The resulting program was named CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP. 

It worked. Students in the program graduated in three years at nearly double the rate of other CUNY students attempting to attend full-time—40 percent compared to 22 percent. Students in the program also transferred to four-year colleges at a higher rate than students not in the program. And the program was evaluated with an uncommon degree of rigor. MDRC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group, ran the randomized control trial, with 896 students participating, and produced a 155-page report of the results. 

The study made a splash. The New York Times wrote up the findings, and its editorial board highlighted them, too. The Obama administration cited the CUNY program’s success, calling on all community colleges to take similar steps as part of their broader proposal to increase the number of Americans getting degrees. “I’ve not seen any other interventions with as large effects as CUNY ASAP,” Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, told me. “It really stands alone.” Funds to continue the program were added to the New York City mayor’s budget. 

Maddie McGarvey

Signature achievement: Kevin Jones signs in for an advising session through Degree in Three, a program that doubles graduation rates.

The question remained, though, could this work elsewhere? Community colleges across the country, most of whom operate on fine margins, weren’t rushing to implement it. A bevy of funders, such as Ascendium Education Group, the ECMC Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Arnold Ventures, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation (the latter four of which have given grants to this nonprofit magazine), chipped in funds to replicate the program elsewhere, for a trial period of three years. Again, it would be rigorously evaluated by MDRC. In 2014, three Ohio community colleges signed up to host the program: Lorain County Community College, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, and Cuyahoga Community College.

Christine Abate was at Tri-C during this evaluation period, as was Kevin Jones. Jones had begun taking courses at the Tri-C Eastern Campus in 2016 after deciding that his roofing job was taking too much of a toll on his body. The program connected him with advisers who he says felt like family. “They were my aunties,” said Jones, now 25 and a transfer student at Case Western Reserve University, where he is studying artificial intelligence and cultural history with an eye toward going to law school to become an attorney in intellectual property. “When you come from that Black cultural experience, it’s really nice to have someone you can latch onto and have that familial type of connection with,” he said. “And [Degree in Three] was the way they were able to interact with me. I’m appreciative [of] the program for allowing me to meet them.”

Abate and Jones weren’t the only students who benefited. MDRC released early data from 2015 and 2016 showing that students in the program were twice as likely to stay in school. After the three-year period was up in 2018, researchers crunched the numbers fully. Ohio’s version of ASAP had been just as effective as CUNY’s: Graduation rates had nearly doubled for students in the program, and students were 50 percent more likely to transfer to a four-year college. If CUNY ASAP was strong proof of concept, this new study of Ohio’s version showed that the concept could be successfully applied elsewhere—it was, in the argot of social science, replicable. And while the cost per student enrolled in the program per year was estimated by researchers to be $3,303, that amount was partially offset by extra revenue (mostly from Pell Grants) the colleges received because students in the program stayed in school longer. With all factors taken into account, MDRC calculated that the cost per graduate of the Ohio version of ASAP was $49,000 less than for similar students not in the program.

Few other community colleges, however, seem interested in even trying to replicate the ASAP model—not because they think it won’t work, but because the realities of the budgeting process in most states and municipalities make funding something like this extremely difficult. One problem, Brock pointed out, is that states budget on a year-to-year basis—a system that doesn’t take into account longer-term savings. If you’re a state legislator or college president who pushes for programs with a longer time frame, you may not get credit for positive outcomes that happen three or six years down the line, he said. On top of that, lawmakers are unlikely to take money away from four-year colleges in order to pay for innovations at community colleges, Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University who studies higher education, said. (Kelchen is also the data manager of the Monthly’s College Guide.) To fund a program like this would “take a significant investment of new money from states to implement this program on a widespread basis. That looks to be very unlikely in the next several years,” Kelchen said.

The evaluation of the program made a splash. The New York Times wrote up the findings, and its editorial board highlighted them, too. The Obama administration cited the program’s success, calling on all community colleges to take similar steps.

Ohio community colleges were only able to run the program with ample grant funding from large foundations. (Another recent attempt to replicate the program in West Virginia is also being funded by Arnold Ventures.) Once the outside money for Ohio ran out, the state legislature didn’t allocate funds to continue the program. Without additional funding, said Miria Batig, who oversaw the program at Tri-C’s Western Campus, “trying to get that kind of ratio [of advisers to students] would be near to impossible.” Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor of academic affairs at the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said as attractive and beneficial as the program may be, the state would be hard pressed to find a way to sustain it. As it stands, Ohio has no plans to expand the program at the state level, and two of the three colleges that participated have discontinued their programs. 

Tiffany Jones, the senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on equity in education, told me that it’s not hard to figure out “how to help students from low-income families complete college—that work has been done.” What is difficult, she said, is finding college leaders and state policymakers who make student success a top priority not only in their rhetoric but also in their budgets. “This is really a question of political will.”

The struggle of the Ohio programs to survive, much less spark similar efforts across the country, tells a larger story about ambitions to make community college better. No past effort had been tested so rigorously and seen such success. Community colleges generally operate on such thin margins that, on their own, it is nearly impossible for them to come up with the additional cash to pilot new programs. But without some money to try out new strategies, it’s hard to see how these schools will ever solve the stubborn problem of low graduation rates—or really any of the problems they face. State and local lawmakers could have theoretically provided the funds to bring CUNY ASAP to their states, but as a practical matter, we now know they won’t. 

There’s another large investor, however, that could step in: the federal government. Jones argued that there should be a federal fund, either for states or for individual colleges, to scale up strategies proven to boost student success. Grants should be tiered by institution type to ensure that under-resourced schools are able to compete for the funds, and investments should target schools that enroll high proportions of historically disadvantaged students, Jones said. There are any number of ways Washington could direct more federal funds to these schools, which would allow them to adopt programs like ASAP. (Kevin Carey lays out one such proposal in this issue.) Until then, the single most promising way to help minority students and students from low-income families succeed in higher education will remain a promise unfulfilled.

 

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly reflect Christine Abate’s degree program at Ohio University, and the status of her car after the accident. 

Update: This story was updated on Aug. 31 to include Ascendium Education Group and ECMC Foundation as funders of the ASAP implementation in Ohio.

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Jamaal Abdul-alim

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a D.C.-based education journalist and the education editor at The Conversation US. His position there is partially funded by the Lumina Foundation, which also helped fund the development of the ASAP program model.