Addressing Students' Remedial Needs: The Evaluation of CUNY Start and Other Strategies


Many students enter postsecondary education underprepared academically, and the success rate for these students is low. At open access colleges (like community colleges), underprepared students are typically referred to developmental (or remedial) coursework, often in the form of multilevel, noncredit course sequences in reading, English, and math.

To help address the needs of incoming underprepared students, the City University of New York (CUNY) developed CUNY Start, a multifaceted prematriculation program that provides intensive instruction in reading, writing, and math through a carefully prescribed curriculum and instructional delivery. CUNY Start condenses the time students spend preparing for college-level English and math into a single semester. In addition, it delivers enhanced academic and nonacademic supports in the form of advisors, tutors, and a weekly seminar that builds college success skills, at a cost to students of only $75 per semester. (CUNY has published a resource guide for college administrators, faculty, and stakeholders interested in learning about the CUNY Start model.)

The underlying theory of change posits that students with developmental needs are best served through a cohort-based integrated academic and nonacademic support model designed to build academic preparedness, confidence, and college know-how, prior to matriculating in college.

With support from the federal Institute of Education Sciences, MDRC, CUNY (co-PI Alexandra W. Logue), and the Community College Research Center are collaborating to evaluate the effectiveness of CUNY Start on student academic success. In addition, the research partners will co-develop a research agenda beyond the evaluation of CUNY Start and will build CUNY’s internal research capacity.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

This study will provide experimental evidence of the estimated effect of CUNY Start on students’ academic outcomes, how these effects vary by population and context (part-time and full-time), how the program is implemented, and its associated costs. These findings will help CUNY refine its institutional strategy and contribute to the national discussion on how to increase the success rate of students who enter community college with substantial remedial needs.

The five-year evaluation will help to answer the following questions:

  •      What is the effect of CUNY Start relative the colleges’ standard services? Do the effects vary across student populations and contexts?

  • How is CUNY Start implemented?

  • To what degree is the program implemented with fidelity to the CUNY Start model?

  • To what degree is there a service contrast between CUNY Start and the colleges’ standard services?
  • What are the costs associated with CUNY Start and is it cost-effective?     

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The evaluation of CUNY Start uses a random assignment research design, where students are randomly assigned either to (1) the opportunity to participate in CUNY Start, or (2) the opportunity to participate in their college’s regular services. The impact, or value-added, of CUNY Start is estimated by comparing the outcomes for these two groups. Both groups will be tracked for up to three years to determine the effects of the program on reduction and/or elimination of remedial needs and on college-level credit accumulation. The evaluation includes complementary implementation research (led by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University) and cost work.

The study is taking place at four of the six CUNY community colleges that implement CUNY Start. Study intake will occur over several incoming cohorts, starting with a spring 2015 cohort. The target population for the study includes students who fail the writing and math placement assessments for the full-time program, and students who fail one or more of these tests for the part-time program. The study will include between 4,000-4,500 students, 70-80 percent in the CUNY Start group and 20-30 percent in the control group.

Using college transcript records, data will be collected on the main outcomes: reduction and/or elimination of remedial needs and college-level credit accumulation (a proxy for overall progress toward a degree). In addition, program implementation, fidelity, and the service contrast will be examined through surveys (of students and instructors), interviews and focus groups (of students, instructors, advisors/counselors, academic support staff, and administrators), classroom observations, and transcript data.