How to Cut College Dropout Rates

Attention to personal needs like mentoring, flexible scheduling and public transportation vouchers can help students in public colleges graduate on time.


“She’s like my older sister”— that’s not how most undergraduates think about their advisers. But it was the first thing that came to Elodie Oriental’s mind when she described Hanna Tenadu. “I go to her to explain everything I’m going through,” said Ms. Oriental, a daughter of Haitian immigrants who, with her twin sister, Ismaelle, shares the distinction of being the first in their family to go to college. “She’s the ear that listens to me cry.”

Ms. Oriental, an undergraduate at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a budding criminal defense lawyer, is enrolled in a program known as ACE (Accelerate, Complete, Engage), CUNY’s response to the nation’s dropout problem. It’s an outsized success and the biggest reason is as old-school as fostering one-on-one relationships like Ms. Oriental’s.

Here’s a hair-on-fire statistic: In 2017, just a third of undergraduates at the nation’s public universities graduated in four years — the amount of time a bachelor’s degree is supposed to take — and even with two additional years, only 58 percent earned a diploma. The community college figures are even more dispiriting: 22 percent of students at public two-year colleges received an associate degree within three years and 28 percent within four years.

Dropouts may actually wind up worse off than if they hadn’t started college. While they earn a little more, they are likely to leave school with a pile of debt, but without the chance to pay it off by securing the high-paying jobs that a degree is supposed to open up. They are three times more likely than college graduates to be unemployed and four times more likely to default on their student loans, a statistic that wrecks their credit.

These dollars-and-cents calculations convey only part of the story. A college education gives students the intellectual capital to tackle high-skill jobs as well as the social capital to make the connections and build the networks that can lead to success. Having a degree affects everything from home ownership and political engagement to life expectancy.

CUNY began tackling the dropout problem at its community colleges 12 years ago. The program, called ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), delivers a bundle of supports, including tuition forgiveness and preference for courses for those enrolled, a course schedule intended to accommodate work and family responsibilities, textbook vouchers and free public transportation. While the promise of free transportation was initially the big draw — students have dubbed ASAP the “Metro-card program” — it’s the personal touch, the “I-have-your-back” advising and counseling, that makes the biggest difference.

ASAP’s impact, confirmed through rigorous, continuous evaluation, is very rare in the annals of higher education. Since the start of the program, 53 percent of ASAP students have earned an associate degree in three years, more than double the national and CUNY-wide completion rates.

Would a similar approach work at a four-year college? John Jay College is the test case, and a recent report concludes that the answer is a resounding “yes.” Nearly 60 percent of the first class of ACE students graduated in four years — about twice the college’s current graduation rate. This statistic wouldn’t impress a top-ranked university, where a student has to work hard not to get a degree. But John Jay is ranked 139th among “regional universities-north” by U. S. News & World Report, and most of its students wouldn’t rate a second look at an elite institution. Many of them are first-in-their-family college-goers; 80 percent are receiving federal or state aid; and two-thirds are African-American or Latino.

The impossible-to-get-into universities deliver white-glove service to their students. As a Harvard graduate, Lawrence Chieu, observed, in a Quora post: “Ivy League students are spoiled, privileged and ‘coddled.’ And they’re very grateful that they are.” CUNY cannot hope to match Harvard, but it can deliver what Mr. Chieu emphasizes — “guidance.”

“My adviser is like my second mom and ACE is like my second home,” Bosco Villavicencio, a recent graduate, told me. “They’re always there for you. They’re passionate about getting across the idea that school is the most important thing in the world. They want us to be more than we can be.”

“‘Graduation is only the first step,’ they told us at commencement,” Mr. Villavicencio added. “‘We want you to get your master’s or law degree. We expect great things.’”

Most undergraduates at big public institutions aren’t fortunate enough to receive abiding support coupled with high expectations. “My twin sister goes to Hunter College,” said Ms. Rojas. “She doesn’t have one-on-one time with an adviser and she’s struggling. She doesn’t see a tutor. She stays home to try figuring it out on her own.”

ACE is not cheap — the cost per student is about $4,000 a year — but the long-term payoff dwarfs the cost. Over their lifetime, college graduates can expect to earn $1 million more than those with only a high school degree. Society benefits too, in increased tax revenue as well as decreased health, crime and welfare costs.

All too often, a promising scheme that works at one institution cannot be replicated, but these initiatives travel well. A second CUNY institution, Lehman College, plans to use ACE this year, and the same playbook is being used elsewhere, with equal success. In Ohio, community college students enrolled in an ASAP-clone program graduated at double the rate of their classmates who were not enrolled. Community colleges in California, Tennessee and elsewhere in New York have followed suit, and Montana is adopting the model at several community colleges and universities.

“Give us better students and we’ll have a higher graduation rate,” traditionalists in higher education habitually insist, excusing their school’s failure to graduate more students by blaming them. But ACE and ASAP are proving the naysayers wrong. Using this model nationwide would go a long way toward solving the dropout problem.

David L Kirp, a contributing writer, is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The College Dropout Scandal.”

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