Supporters of President Obama’s free community college plan focus on the vital role those institutions play. Others have noted the weak results they frequently produce. Low completion rates and sometimes low academic standards have proven resistant to reform at too many institutions.
One university system, however, is making significant progress towards improving both. In a report released earlier this year, MDRC—a national policy research group—points to the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs initiative as a remarkable model of success.
How right they are. Reflecting a sea change in the thinking on remediation, the program sought to improve academic rigor and the quality of instruction while preserving a commitment to access for low-income and otherwise under-served students. At a time when the conventional wisdom was to reduce requirements for struggling students, CUNY realized that these students needed more programming to keep them on track. As a result, the ASAP program includes mandatory summer seminars, high-contact advising, and—perhaps most important—the traditionally strong framework of CUNY’s core curriculum.
The core curriculum is a crucial element of student success that CUNY must energetically endeavor to maintain. ACTA has long recognized the potential of this approach. In 2010, ACTA’s Institute for Effective Governance published an “Essay in Perspective” on the success the ASAP program had already achieved.
That success came at a fairly low cost, due to the centralization of remediation efforts at the systems’ seven community colleges and the existence of a comprehensive core curriculum. A rigorous and thorough core helps students move through the system more quickly. Not only is it easier for students to keep track of requirements, but students transferring to senior colleges are prepared to do the work they will encounter there. Although the initial investment was large, “because CUNY ASAP generated so many more graduates than the usual college services, the cost per degree was lower.”
This approach has been successful because it defines the problem correctly. Though many still think of access as a question of how to get more under-served students to enroll in college, the CUNY Board of Trustees (chaired by ACTA friend and Merrill Award winner Benno Schmidt) realized that increasing enrollment is the easy part. The difficulty is getting students who do enroll—but are often unprepared for college level work—to graduate.
This is complicated by the myth of the” iron triangle” of higher education: the idea that policies that increase access necessarily reduce quality or increase cost. Conversely, efforts to increase quality are expected to increase cost.
CUNY’s experience starting with a 1970 decision to adopt an open admissions policy at all schools shows how damaging this belief can be. CUNY did see a marked increase in minority enrollment during the open admissions period. But, with so few of these students completing a degree, their enrollment could hardly be deemed a success. The ASAP program has turned the problem around, demonstrating instead that high access programs can have high quality and high standards without huge increase in expenditure.
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