New York

Could $2,000 a Year Keep Students in College?

Jessica Ramlakhan, 37, has a goal: She wants to become a psychologist and open a private practice with flexible, family-friendly hours to help troubled teenagers. But until two years ago, between family and work, she hadn’t managed to make it through even one full semester of college.

Problems like hersare common among thousands of students across New York’s public university system, becoming a crisis for its colleges and for higher education nationally. While many elite universities have grown more selective, enrollment has been dropping overall at American community colleges and many four-year colleges, too. When students do enroll, many never graduate.

Now, the university system is hoping a new program can help reverse this trajectory for struggling students — and for the higher education more broadly. The program, which involves an investment of about $2,000 a year per student and simple strategies like giving students money for transportation, has already been implemented on a small scale at Ms. Ramlakhan’s community college in Westchester, where it has been helping her.

It will now be expanded across 24 additional campuses of the State University of New York, state officials will announce Tuesday.

Known as ASAP, or Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, the effort has roughly doubled graduation rates for participants at the City University of New York since it was started there in 2007. It provides a set of services like textbook fees, transportation stipends, academic advisement, free tutoring and tuition funds. In exchange, the students commit to full-time study and meet with their advisers regularly.

While the components of the program are not revolutionary, their combination appears to work to increase student persistence. Several studies validate the program’s results, and the effort has been replicated at colleges in Ohio, California and several other states.

“Students feel that someone has their back, that there’s this comprehensive set of resources around them that are very thoughtfully put together,” said Donna Linderman, the senior vice chancellor for student success at SUNY, who also helped lead the CUNY program. “There’s always someone there who is thinking about what could be a challenge for you.”

Only about 20 percent of first time, full-time students at public community colleges finish their associate degree within three years nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among baccalaureate students, only about 2 in 3 graduate in six years.

At CUNY, the average graduation rate among the 88,000 students who have participated in ASAP since its founding was 53 percent, compared with 25 percent for a statistically matched comparison group, the system said. CUNY now enrolls a full one-third of its students in the program, which it estimates costs about $3,400 per student there.

John King, the chancellor of SUNY, is hoping for similar results at the 24 SUNY campuses that will enroll a group of 150 students each in the program in 2024. Funded by the governor’s budget, private donations and the colleges themselves, he estimates the program will cost roughly $2,000 per student.

“I would argue it is a very smart investment,” he said. If the program shows strong results, “I think that will help send a really powerful message across the system and the state and help us make the case for more resources, because this costs money,” he said.

Mirroring a similar enrollment crisis nationally, enrollment at SUNY’s community colleges has dropped from by a third over the last 10 years, from 243,000 in 2012 to 159,000 in 2022. While many of its larger university centers and other four-year institutions have faired much better, overall enrollment in its four-year institutions was still down about 6 percent.

Graduation rates at SUNY are somewhat better than national averages at public colleges, but they remain too low, Mr. King said. About 67 percent of first time, full-time bachelor’s degree students graduate within six years; and 28 percent of associate degree students finish within three years.

Mr. King is hoping that ASAP, (and its bachelor’s degree counterpart ACE, or Accelerate, Compete, Engage) can actually help the bottom line at struggling state schools like Buffalo State, where fewer than 40 percent of students graduate within six years. Enrollment there is down by a quarter since before the pandemic. If an ASAP-like program can increase graduation rates, that will encourage more students to come, he said.

For the past two years, Ms. Ramlakhan has been attending Westchester Community College, a SUNY school that launched a program modeled on ASAP in 2018. (It budgets $3,400 per year per student for the program, like CUNY, a spokesman said.) She said her adviser, Alexandria Schaefer, has guided her to choose the right classes to move quickly toward graduation this December. She’s also received free tutoring and money to help with her commute.

Now, she’s getting help choosing a bachelor’s degree program where she can continue toward her goal of getting a doctorate in psychology, while being a mother of three children and working as a substitute teacher. She has taken nearly all of her classes remotely to make scheduling possible, and is proud of her 3.8 GPA.

“I always said to myself, I could never do this,” she said. “It’s a lot. And I’m doing it.”

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