NYC community colleges invest in student support to boost grad rates

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 reports.

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    The Obama administration has long touted efforts to boost college completion. But graduation rates haven't budged. That's why states across the country are watching an effort in New York City that promises to more than double graduation rates at community colleges.

    Hari Sreenivasan went to the Bronx to see how the city's community colleges plan to do it.


    Karla Ayala is in her last semester at Bronx Community College. If everything goes as planned, she will earn her associate's degree from the City University of New York campus in five semesters, or about two years.

    Only 20 percent of community college students complete a degree or certificate within three years of enrollment. Ayala has done it despite having the types of responsibilities that derail hundreds of thousands of students every year.

  • KARLA AYALA, Student, Bronx Community College:

    College is stressful, and then on top of it having an outside life, I have kids, I'm married, I don't have a full-time job, but yet I have a responsibility part-time at school.


    She's stayed on track with the help of Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, The City University of New York created the wrap-around support program for full-time students on some of its seven community college campuses in 2007.


    I did a semester without being in ASAP, and it was a little hard, because I was — in a sense, I was lost.


    Ayala is up at 6:00 to get the kids ready for school and out the door by 7:30, when her husband is already at work. ASAP pays for any tuition not covered by scholarships, which meant $2,600 a semester for Ayala.

    Students also get a stipend for textbooks. Commuting costs in a city like New York can add up and become a hurdle. ASAP provides free monthly MetroCards for city buses and trains, which normally cost $116. Class schedules that change every semester can derail students who have to work or care for family. ASAP students take blocks of classes that bring them to campus at the same time every day. That means Ayala knows she can get home to pick the kids up from school.

    But the most important support has come from her adviser.


    We have established a relationship where she knows, like, OK, Karla, what's going on with this class? And I had a class where I was struggling, and she definitely, you know, gave me the pep talk. She's like, you got to do it. I'm not going to take you out of the class. You're going to have to work hard in your tutoring.


    The data points to success stories beyond Ayala. Only 17 percent of CUNY's full-time community college students get a degree in three years. For ASAP students, the rate is 57 percent. In the fall, New York City leaders pledged an additional $42 million to expand the program from 7,500 students this year to 25,000 by 2018.

    The goal is to raise the system wide graduation rate to 50 percent or higher for full-time students.

    JAMES MILLIKEN, Chancellor, The City University of New York: At community colleges, and particularly at urban community colleges across the country, the three-year graduation rate is about 16 percent right now. And so you could call that a crisis.


    CUNY's chancellor James Milliken:


    The issue's not all about access. It's a big part of it. We have to be focused on the success of our students, getting them a degree.


    Ayala's adviser, Melanie Robles, says turning the numbers around takes more than pointing students to the right classes.


    I can work with a student on their academics, right? That's typical. But then you also have that moment where you're working with a student that is having difficulty at home, so you're coaching them on maybe how to have a conversation with a parent that maybe doesn't want to assist them any longer to take care of their child for them.


    Javier Legasa oversees ASAP on the Bronx campus. He says this intensive support is possible because ASAP advisers only work with 150 students each semester, compared to 500 students for each adviser outside the program.

  • JAVIER LEGASA, ASAP Assistant Dean, Bronx Community College:

    Students need to feel that they belong, that this is their place, that we welcome them. And so having the sense of connection with staff members, with the other students as well, and the faculty who will be teaching them in class, this is a key element.


    And they're tracking students' progress closely.


    Sometimes, it can be, OK, you may have to withdraw from one of the classes so you can concentrate in others. But, in other cases, we will be just, you know, do some tutoring work, for example.


    Somebody's going to say, listen, this is a ton of money. Why don't you just hand these people the keys to a four-year private institution if you're going to invest $80 million in 25,000 students?


    The cost that's invested in a community college student may be about $15,000. And we're talking about now a cost of an additional $3,700 for the ASAP program today.

    Now, by the time we scale up to 25,000, it may be $3,200. It may be lower. The cost per degree goes down. But if you look at a lot of the research that's been done on educational attainment levels, there are a whole lot of other social benefits, lower demand on criminal justice system, on social welfare systems, divorce rates.


    Karla Ayala is playing her own part in the ASAP expansion. In her part-time job as a peer mentor, she runs information sessions like the one that exposed her to ASAP two years ago.


    So, it's like you have this group with the same mentality, and you're bound to be successful.


    By 2018, CUNY plans to enroll nearly all 7,000 full-time students at the Bronx campus in ASAP.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Hari Sreenivasan in New York.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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