MDRC in the News

Building Knowledge to Improve Degree Completion in Community Colleges

Brian Jacob, EducationNext


Social policy research is littered with examples of small programs that show tremendous success when initially implemented, but cannot be replicated. The story of the City University of New York’s (CUNY’s) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) – and the work that MDRC has done with CUNY to adapt, replicate and evaluate this program – is an excellent counterexample…..

…..The ASAP program seeks to address multiple barriers to community college completion simultaneously. Students in the program must enroll full time in an Associate Degree program. They receive free tuition and textbooks as well as a MetroCard to access the city’s subway and bus system. They attend classes in cohorts designed to provide a sense of community, and are provided with frequent, personalized advising and (if necessary) tutoring.

As described last year in Evidence Speaks, the program was wildly successful. A randomized control trial conducted by MDRC found that ASAP doubled the three-year graduation rate, from 22 percent to 40 percent.

These results are exciting, but not unprecedented.

Recognizing the value of determining how to scale the program, CUNY and MDRC set about to test the ASAP model in other settings. Working with three community colleges in Ohio and a group of funders led by the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates, the ASAP model was modified slightly to fit a more decentralized community college system that serves a different population of students. Like the original model, the Ohio programs provided a suite of wrap-around services intended to simultaneously address multiple barriers facing community college students. The early results from MDRC’s randomized control trial of the Ohio programs are encouraging. In their second semester, 81.7 percent of program students were still enrolled in college compared with only 69.7 percent of control students, a difference of 12 percentage points…..

…..This naturally raises the question: Are there other ways to provide comprehensive supports to students?

The Detroit Regional Chamber, working with MDRC, developed and is currently testing a coaching intervention known as the Detroit Promise Path, which is intended to support students receiving the Detroit Promise scholarship. Students in the program are required to meet with their coach twice per month. The idea is that coaches can help students navigate a wide range of challenges they may face, ranging from financial hardship to academic difficulty to feelings of isolation. While the program operates at the Chamber, outside of the colleges, all of the coaches are familiar with the schools so that they can refer them to available campus resources and help them to navigate the bureaucracy. Moreover, coaches provide students with emotional support and encouragement. The program also helps students stay positively engaged in school or in jobs programs during the summer and provides financial incentives to attend coaching sessions.

MDRC is using a random assignment design to evaluate the impact of the program, starting with the cohort of students entering college in fall 2016. Initial program results show some promise. In their second semester, roughly 60 percent of program students were still enrolled in college compared with only 49 percent of control students, a difference of 11 percentage points. The difference in full-time enrollment was even larger…..

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