The Importance of Getting Students to Graduation Part II

Part II: Some Solutions

Graduation CelebrationIn part one of this series we took a close look at the causes and effects of low graduation rates on American students in public higher education. The failure to recognize the demographic and cultural changes that have up-ended our preconception of both traditional and non-traditional students has resulted in a lack of reliable data which in turn has led to an inability to address the problem in a cohesive fashion.

So, while more and more people look to higher education as a ladder to success, and higher education continues to provide the return on investment, failure to graduate with a degree in hand leaves students with little more than debt to show for their efforts. The ground breaking study “Time is the Enemy” not only details the extent of the problem - the notion that the longer students are in school the less likely they are to graduate - it also offers substantive solutions, a number of which are being tried and tested in schools across the country.

The study provides recommendation for each of its critical findings and highlights progress being made in different states across the country. For example, to address the shortage of progress and outcome data they suggest institutions keep it simple by tracking degrees awarded annually, graduation rates, and transfer rates. For progress metrics they identify remediation entry and success rates, credit accumulation, retention rates, course completion, as well as time and credits to degree. To address the plight of those unable to graduate even given twice as much time, they suggest the use of block scheduling to make it easier for busy non-traditional students to balance work home life and school. Additionally, the study promotes the idea of speeding up the process toward certificate or degree by simplifying registration, reducing the amount of required classroom time, encouraging peer support and networking, embedding remediation in “for credit” classes, and providing better more detailed information to perspective students about graduation rates and job placement so that students can make better choices from the start.

CUNY’s As Soon As Possible Program

In response to low graduation rates at community colleges - approximately a third of those accepted graduate - CUNY, the City University of New York, implemented their ASAP or Accelerated Study in Associate Programs at seven community colleges in 2007. The program was expanded in 2009 after early indicators showed marked improvements in progress and graduation rates. CUNY is the largest public university system in the nation serving more than half a million students annually.

An independent report was commissioned to substantiate the success of the ASAP program in 2012. The results were presented by Susan Scrivener and Michael J. Weiss of the MDRC in More Graduates: Two-year results from an evaluation of ASAP for Developmental Education Students. The report details improvements in academic outcomes as a result of ASAP’s array of requirements and services which include requiring students to enroll full-time and complete development courses early. Additionally, all students are required to take an ASAP seminar in their first year. This “no credit” course focuses on academic planning and goal setting. Comprehensive services including advisement, tutoring and career services in tandem with financial supports such as tuition waivers, free metro cards for use of public transportation, as well as free textbooks, help to build both a commitment and a network among students to reach the goal of obtaining an associate’s degree within three years.

Improvement in Graduation RatesThe results speak for themselves. CUNY has seen an increase in enrollment rates, improvements in the speed at which students are accumulating credits, and a 5.7% improvement in graduation rates over a two year period. For those students where remedial courses were necessary, and a third year of school expected, 33.3% of the student in this group graduated compared with 18.2% in the control group - this is an increase of 15.1 percentage points.

According to the authors “ASAP’s two-year effects are unparalleled in large-scale experimental evaluations of programs in higher education to date. The program aims to simultaneously address multiple barriers to student achievement over multiple semesters, and is one of the most aggressive efforts in the country to improve the success rates of low-income students.”

Rethinking Remediation

Basic Math and Reading


Remediation, the need to address basic math, reading and writing skills is a critical factor in deterring matriculation.


The University of Texas, Austin has taken a different approach. Rather than remedial classes where credits obtained don’t count toward graduation, a subset of the accredited course is provided for those students in trouble. Advisors keep a close watch on students, classes are smaller and individual instruction is available. Students are still required to do the same work as those who did not require mediation, and with the support of Professors, tutors, and mentors are able to quickly identify and assist students at risk. Such support is the key to the success of this program particularly for African American, Hispanic and students from economically challenged backgrounds. These are students whose test scores and academic achievements in high school have won them acceptance, but are now in need of support to adjust to the scholastic and cultural demands of the institution that might otherwise drop out after their first year. This kind of support results in more confident students who are better able to meet the ongoing challenges of college life.

A Social Movement

College DiplomaA private group known as the Lumina Foundation, citing that currently only 38.7% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have a two or four year degree, and that US jobs will require 65% to have some form of post secondary education by 2020, has set an aggressive goal: “To increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.”

As the nation’s largest foundation focused on this specific goal they are working at federal, state and local levels “designing and building a 21st Century Higher Education System.” Characterizing their efforts as a social movement, the Lumina Foundation seeks to impact higher education at multiple levels, by building new models for student financial support and introducing new business and finance models designed to incentivize colleges and universities to graduate more students. Touting theirs as a “low-cost, high quality" approach, the foundation is taking a very “private sector” like look at processes and efficiencies designed to produce savings while increasing graduation rates. They are even exploring the creation of a new system of quality credentials (certificates and degrees) for students looking to fill jobs in a 21st century economy.

In Conclusion:

Taking a “hands on” approach in guiding students to graduation requires rethinking, reinvestment and the same kind of innovation that we constantly hear about coming from the private sector.

The cost of these programs is not cheap with CUNY’s ASAP costing $3,900 per year, per student. But this is a small price to pay in the long run when compared to the lifetime benefits of a population contributing to higher tax revenues as well as savings on crime, welfare and health costs which, according to a recent study of New York State’s program by economists Henry M. Levin and Emma Garcia results in “a whopping $205,514 return on investment for each associates degree awarded.

Of course changes need to be made in K-12 as well. The NEA reported that 12 states had improved graduation rates between 2002 and 2006 by as little as 3.0% in NH, to as much as 11.2% in Tennessee, by raising the legal drop out age, developing smaller learning communities within high schools, increasing the number of students with disabilities who receive diplomas and by insisting that improving graduation rates be a state priority. Seven years later, such changes are now in place in almost all of the states.

Like the health care field, education is experiencing the kind of disruption brought on, not only by improvements in technology, but by increased consumer demand for results and transparency. The traditional focus on enrollment rates is shifting to a focus on completion with states making graduation rates a factor in determining fund allocation for Universities and colleges. This critical time in the history of American higher education represents an opportunity for innovation. Is your school ready for the challenge?

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