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Giving low-income students enough support to graduate, colleges face financial catch-22

The monotony of working retail had finally gotten to Amalia Lewis-Miller by 2015, when she decided to go to college. After five years of clocking in at Home Depot, she was 27 and earning $12 an hour. She had worked at Target before that and at one store or another since high school.

“I realized that retail wasn’t for me,” she said. “I couldn’t think of doing it for 20 years.”

Lewis-Miller enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College, a 20-minute walk from her apartment. It was pretty much her only choice, since she didn’t own a car. She said she was “going on faith” that federal and state financial aid would cover tuition, which could cost up to nearly $1,500 per semester.

But on a visit to the Cleveland-area campus, Lewis-Miller happened to ask for directions from the person in charge of testing a program meant to help low-income students like her. She signed up for the program and graduated in two years — far faster than the 80 percent of community college students nationwide who take three years or longer to finish, or never do. She’s now pursuing a bachelor’s degree and hopes to work in physical therapy or a related field.

Her experience was even luckier than Lewis-Miller could imagine. At a time when federal, state and institutional policies are backing away from helping low-income, first-generation and ethnic and racial minority students, a few colleges are spending significant amounts of time and money on providing such help, using a model piloted by City University of New York, or CUNY.

Some of these schools are trying to buck the trends that are making it even harder than it was before for these students to get to and through college. But they’re also looking out for their own self-interest. Public university and college budgets are increasingly dependent on how many students graduate. And all institutions, including private ones, are struggling with enrollment declines. The students in the greatest supply are precisely those who need the most help.

“The longer you keep a student, the more likely they are to graduate, the better [the] return for the institution,” said Brett Visger, associate vice chancellor for institutional collaboration and completion at the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

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Ohio is one of 35 states with so-called performance funding that judge colleges on their graduation rates; half of the money allocated to community colleges in Ohio is tied to the percentage of students who graduate.

That’s not the only motivation. Some of those colleges have also seen declining enrollments. To continue collecting tuition, they need to bring in students and keep them on track toward degrees.

Around the time that colleges like these were casting around for ways to solve their problems, researchers were touting the results of an experiment begun in 2007 at CUNY. It had launched a model called Accelerated Study in Associate Programs — ASAP — which provided free tuition, financial help with books, intensive counseling and even subway passes. Forty percent of the students in the program graduated within three years, almost double the previous rate of 22 percent.

These results do not come cheap. At CUNY, ASAP initially cost $6,000 per student, per year, above what was already being spent. Even with economies of scale as it grew to serving 21,000 students, ASAP costs an additional $3,400 per student, per year.

Still, a few colleges elsewhere in New York and California, and community colleges such as Cuyahoga and two others in Ohio, have since made ASAP more than the subject of a decade of research papers and admiring conference panels. They’ve adopted the model themselves.


Can New York City dramatically increase graduation rates at its community colleges? That’s the goal behind a support program for full-time students, which offers financial help, convenient schedules and the encouragement of an adviser. Hari Sreenivasan reported this story in 2016.

These institutions hope that keeping students in school and graduating them faster will lower costs, raise revenue and respond to what Donna Linderman, dean for student success initiatives and ASAP executive director at CUNY, calls “the winds of accountability blowing across higher education.”

How hard this is to do speaks to the challenges facing all colleges and universities as demographic changes bring about changes in the types of people seeking higher education.

In Ohio, offering ASAP-level support costs $3,000 per student above what’s already usually spent; in California, at Skyline Community College, about $1,200. This at a time when funding for public higher education in many states continues to fall.

Running an ASAP-like program “is not a marginal cost increase” for an institution, said Nikki Edgecombe, senior research scientist at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “This is a material cost increase, in an environment where institutions are losing revenue.” (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is based at Teachers College.)

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The model’s cost, on the one hand, and the many demands being made of colleges, on the other, create a “dynamic tension,” Visger said. One victim of this: The program that helped Lewis-Miller graduate so quickly from Cuyahoga. It’s being discontinued because of its high price.

The school spent $2.7 million out of its own budget and from grants on a four-year trial, registering improvements in the share of students who returned from one year to the next. But the cost of expanding it further proved prohibitive, said Lisa Williams, vice president of learning and engagement. “We wish we could do this for every student, but it’s just not financially feasible.”

Cuyahoga hopes to apply some of the lessons learned from the model. For Lewis-Miller, the most important part of the program was intensive counseling, something community colleges are often hard pressed to provide. Williams said the school will continue providing similar counseling to more students moving forward.

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“The financial help was great. I appreciated it so much,” said Lewis-Miller. “But the support was what got me through.”

Her experience is borne out by a new study concluding that intensive advising plus emergency financial help tripled associate degree completion rates, while financial help on its own had little impact.

Other campuses adopting ASAP are more hopeful. At Lorain County Community College, also in Ohio, the school has reached 427 students with the model in the past two years, and is committed to funding its expansion, even if it means taking money from other programs, said its president, Marcia Ballinger.

Westchester Community College in New York has raised $2.6 million from foundations and other donors to begin the program in the fall. “This is the only reform proven to double community college graduation rate, so it behooved us to look at the most efficient model,” said Laurie Miller McNeill, director of institutional advancement.

When that startup money runs out, McNeill said, “We think we’ll see the long-term sustainability of this program within the institution because it will be more cost-effective in the long run.” In fact, she said, it may generate more revenue from students who are making timely progress rather than forever churning toward degrees, or never earning one.

“That’s why it’s a win-win — for students and for the institution,” she said.

Skyline Community College, near San Francisco, is also rolling out a program based on ASAP. Half of students there drop out between the first and second semesters each year and fewer than 20 percent graduate, even within six years. It hopes to reach 1,200 of the school’s 10,000 or so students with the ASAP model by fall 2020, said Angelica Garcia, vice president for student services.

The school has raised about $3 million to sustain the program until then, Garcia said, and is looking to raise more.

Meanwhile, Linderman, at CUNY, sees more interest in ASAP with every positive research report.

“We get calls every week from colleges around the country,” she said. “I’ve talked to many states that are performance-funded states and they do see ASAP as a wise choice since, if successful, it will help access additional money.” But, she added, “the Catch-22 is, you have to have money to actually do it.”

CUNY itself plans to expand the program to 25,000 students in the fall. “I want to be clear we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” Linderman said. She said it’s also “important to demonstrate success — and success is, increasingly, not just enrollment; it’s completion.”

The cost of programs such as ASAP, however, remains an obstacle. It’s a cautionary tale as higher education prepares to enroll more students who will need financial, academic and personal support.

“The reason it’s expanding to places like Ohio, New York and California is because of its success,” said Mike Weiss, who, as senior researcher at MDRC, a research organization, has overseen studies of ASAP. “But the reason it’s not expanding more is because it’s expensive.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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