Increasing College Graduation Rates

The American Institutes for Research estimates the cost of college dropouts, measured in lost earnings and taxes, at $4.5 billion. American students are enrolling in college in record numbers, but they’re also dropping out as quickly. Barely half of those who start four-year colleges, and only a third of community college students, graduate. That’s one of the worst records among developed nations, and it’s a substantial drain on the economy.

If colleges supply help, graduation rates more than double, according to several evaluations of an innovative program at the City University of New York’s community colleges. CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has garnered accolades in the media for its package of comprehensive financial resources, student support systems and impressive graduation rates.

Nearly 90 percent of students who attend a top-ranked university earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. While these undergraduates may well be among the best and brightest, they also get kid-gloves treatment. If they run into trouble, an army of helpmates stands at the ready. “From moving day as a freshman through graduation and beyond,” Harvard assures its students, “our advisers are here to help and support you at every step.”

The situation is entirely different for most undergraduates, especially poor and minority students who frequently need the most help. All too often they’re steered to schools where they receive little if any support in mastering tough courses, decoding requirements for a major, sorting out life problems or navigating the maze of institutional requirements. Graduation rates at these so-called dropout factories, especially those in urban areas that largely serve low-income, underprepared minority populations, are as abysmal as 5 percent.

Where a student goes makes all the difference. Consider a Chicago public high school graduate with a grade-point average of 3.5. If she enrolls at Chicago State University, the odds against her finishing are high — the school’s six-year graduation rate hovers at 20 percent. Her chances measurably improve if she attends the University of Illinois at Chicago, where the completion rate is 57 percent. And if she goes to Northwestern, just a few miles away, 93 percent of her classmates will graduate.

Six years ago, CUNY decided to confront the high dropout rate at its community colleges with the ASAP initiative. The results are stunning: 56 percent of the first two cohorts of more than 1,500 students have graduated, compared with just 23 percent of a comparable group that didn’t have the same experience. What’s more, most of those graduates are currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

While the added dollars make a big difference, students consistently report in individual profiles found on the CUNY ASAP website, that biweekly seminars and one-on-one advising — is crucial.

These results have persuaded CUNY to triple the size of the community college program to 4,000 students by fall 2014, and the system is considering expanding ASAP to its other schools. But this strategy merits a nationwide rollout, for it promises a significant increase in the number of educated workers that the nation badly needs.