What Works: Helping Students Complete their College Degrees

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by James A. Bacon

In Virginia, nearly 30% of students who enroll in community college or four-year college fail to complete their degrees within six years. There is widespread agreement across the political spectrum that it would be a good thing if more students completed their degrees and fewer dropped out of college after loading up on student-loan debt they can never repay. The question is, how do we improve the college completion rate.

Yesterday I highlighted analysis found in a study by Rachel Fulcher Dawson, Melissa S. Kearney, and James X. Sullivan, “Comprehensive Approaches to Increasing Student Completion in Higher Education,” that shed light on why students drop out of college. Today, as promised, I focus on eight programs they have identified that measured their results in raising the completion rate. These include:

The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) was developed by the City University of New York (CUNY) in 2007. This program assigns full-time, low-income students to advisors with small caseloads to help them to transition to college life, navigate their college campus, plan a career path, and access additional supports if they fall off track. The program provides tuition waivers, a MetroCard, and free use of textbooks. The program achieved an 18 percentage point increase in degree completion, twice the graduation rate of a control group. But it was extremely expensive — $42,000 per student for a three-year program.

Stay the Course (STC) was designed and implemented by Catholic Charities Fort Worth. This comprehensive program places students from low-income families with trained social workers, called navigators, who provide coaching, mentoring and referral services. Enrollees have access to limited emergency financial assistance. This program has been most successful with females, showing a 31.5 percentage point increase in associates degree completion for females, three-times higher than the control group. The cost is $5,640 per student over three years.

Inside Track is an independent, nonprofit provider of coaching services that combine different methods, curricula and technologies. It serves students from all income levels but students tend to be non-traditional with an average age of 31. Students are matched to coaches who support them, by telephone and digital communications, through the start of college and through the first year. Coached students were four percentage points more likely to graduate. Cost: $500 per student per semester.

One Million Degrees, founded in 2006, provides comprehensive supports to community colleges in Chicago, serving first-time, low-income students with at least a year of college remaining and a GPA of 2.0 or higher. The program pairs students with a program coordinator with whom they meet at least months to address challenges and plan a path for success. The program provides performance-based stipends, last-dollar scholarships, an skill-building workshops, advising and coaching. One-year persistence participating in the program was 20.7 percentage points higher, a 35% increase over the control group. Cost: $2,500 to $3,000 per student per year.

Project Quest, founded in 1992 in San Antonio, Texas, provides financial assistance, remedial instruction in math and reading, counseling to address personal and academic concerns, referrals to outside agencies for other assistance, and weekly meetings focused on life skill like time-management and study skills. In six- and nine-year follow ups, participants had significantly higher earnings. Cost: $10,501 per student.

Monitoring Advising Analytics to Promote Success (MAAPS), launched in 2016 by the University Innovation Alliance based on a model piloted at George State University, addresses the lack of “know how” of many low-income and first-generation students. Counselors help students navigate key academic choices, provides real-time alerts prompted in part through analytics-based tracking when they go off path, and intervenes to get students back on an appropriate academic path. Participants in Georgia State accumulated 1.2 more credits and 0.17 point higher cumulative GPA. Other campuses have yet to see an effect on persistence so far. Cost: not available.

Opening Doors, based in Ohio, serves both part- and full-time lower-income students. Students have access to counselors with relatively low caseloads (157 cases on average) and meet at least twice per semester for two semesters. Students are eligible for a $150 stipend for each semester. The program showed no significant increase in credits earned over a three-year follow up period. Cost: not available.

Student Achievement and Retention Project (Project Star) was implemented at a large Canadian university in 2005. All first-year students were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups. One offered a full set of support services, including mentoring by upperclassmen and supplemental instruction; a second received cash awards up to a full year of tuition by meeting a target GPA; a third offered a combination of services and incentives. The program was not continued beyond the life of the research study. The program showed an increase in GPA and credits earned for first-year female students, but none for males. Cost: $739 per student per year.

Bacon’s bottom line: This overview lends itself to some conclusions. First, some programs make no measurable difference. Second, the more impactful programs apply greater resources and are more expensive. Even then, success is not guaranteed. The program with the best results, CUNY’s ASAP program, costs $42,000 per student over three years. That’s far too expensive for Virginia to contemplate funding with public dollars, and beyond the means of the philanthropic community for more than a few students.

The underlying assumption of all these programs is that failing students require one of two things: more counseling or more financial support. On occasion, that may be exactly what the doctor ordered. But how often?

Two programs showed results for female students, but not for males. Clearly, male college students confront a different set of challenges that aren’t being addressed. Are program designers taking this reality into account?

Virginia data for four-year colleges shows that 22.8% of higher-income families fail to graduate within six years. That’s a lot of students for a demographic segment that, according to the assumptions that animate these programs, should have few problems. The truth is that mental illness and substance abuse are shockingly common and a cause of student failure at all socioeconomic levels.

To be sure, the dropout percentage is higher for students from lower-income Virginia families — 42.2%. But we don’t know if the problems are due to a lack of money, which financial aid can address, or due to family circumstances, which financial aid cannot fix, or a combination of the two.

We still have a lot to learn about what works. Any initiatives we pursue — such as a program scheduled to go into effect this year to means test Virginia community tuition and provide financial assistance for low-income students for when “life gets in the way,” to use Governor Ralph Northam’s words — should be carefully tracked to see if they make a measurable difference. If they work, we can expand them. If they don’t, we should fix them or pull the plug.

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11 responses to “What Works: Helping Students Complete their College Degrees

  1. I don’t know about others….I recall the special challenge of being a male student was the presence of so many female students. Very distracting.

    I know similar programs are underway in Virginia schools. Perhaps someone from SCHEV will join the discussion with examples.

    • Should have majored in engineering, math, or physics. In those days, those departments were located in the “monastery” building.

      • Yeah, I never did make that 8 am calculus class (in Jones?), and tried to coast off memories of my HS version….that was a mistake.

        • Ah, would that I could do it again.

          Yes, Jones Hall. Alas, I got only my graduate degree from W&M. Took at most 5 courses on campus, always at night. Took 2 courses at ODU, 2 at NASA, and the rest on campus at VARC or Jefferson Labs. I did have an office in Jones, and a desk with a dead cactus on it.

          I was a “roads scholar”. Probably spent as much time in the car on I-64 driving to and from class as in class.

          I was on campus one day in 2010 and got lost.

  2. Baconator with extra cheese

    Don’t worry I heard segregation is making a comeback!

  3. ” … assigns full-time, low-income students …”
    ” … serves students from all income levels …”
    ” … serving first-time, low-income students …”
    ” …many low-income and first-generation students …”

    In my experience, the majority of college students are poor. I certainly was. I had to work during the school year at various jobs and borrow money from the state to pay tuition and make ends meet. But I wasn’t stupid. I could figure out what classes I needed to take to graduate. So could everyone else I knew. It wasn’t that hard. If there was an issue you had an academic advisor.

    These programs sound like they are designed for students who have no business being in college.

    “This program assigns full-time, low-income students to advisors with small caseloads to help them to transition to college life, navigate their college campus, plan a career path, and access additional supports if they fall off track. ”

    Transition to college life? So, if your parents are poor it’s harder to transition to college life than if your parents are middle class? I never once called my parents to ask them how to “transition to college life”. Navigate their college campus? Really? Like find the buildings where the classes are held? How do the children of middle class parents manage to do this? In my day we had paper maps. Today students have GPS, Waze, etc. Seriously – they need help finding the buildings where the classes are taught? I reiterate my question – should these students even be in college?

  4. Baconator with extra cheese

    Sounds a lot like providing parents…
    Maybe we should just go all in and remove kids from homes from the get go and send them to education centers. I’m sure them Dems would be down if they get voters for life.
    The bonus for the rest of us is maybe we can save money on jails and courthouses on the back end. At the very least we may be able to cut down on sex abuse, poor nutrition, and some violence/ mental issues.

  5. My two cents: Help adults graduate by treating them like adults. Many students face a choice between sub-par medical care and working a benefits-eligible job. Colleges can alleviate this dilemma by offering decent health insurance to students and their dependents. Colleges could offer adult-centric housing- housing that does not require ditching a spouse or cat.  Above all, colleges can make good on program commitments: they can offer required courses in a timely fashion. My own bachelor’s and master’s graduations were delayed by a lack of available classes. I understand course availability is a widespread problem.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    The 30% who didn’t make it to the finish line should have considered alternatives prior to enrollment. Sharp minded high school grads should seek out companies that require a HS diploma/GED and will support college tuition. UPS, Wal Mart, Dominion Energy, heck even Starbucks. A Dominion Energy fresh out of high school lineman is going to get paid 21 bucks an hour, medical/dental paid for, access to a pension/stocks, and they will pay for college.

    My cousin Mike M. has worked for 32 years at UPS in Front Royal. We graduated the same year. He went to work and I went to Va. Tech. He is far better positioned for retirement and has earned far more dollars than I ever did as a school teacher. UPS paid for his college degree as well. We are the first in Warren County side of the family to earn a college degree.

    High school grads and parents that are still thinking of the Faber College model are being taken. Maybe they deserve it.

  7. Maybe we should stop baby sitting these kids and insist they grow up…
    I had a checking account by age 16.. Also doing my own tax returns. At 18 in 1970 I started engineering at VPI. Probably one of the few freshmen with a car. My mother had told me if I didn’t want to take the bus to college I better fix one of the broken cars on the place. Graduated 4 years later. My parents didn’t help me move in, they didn’t help me select courses, they didn’t help me find the dining hall, laundry, classrooms, or get me out of bed in the morning to go to class.. In short, early on in life my parents expected me to be a grown up responsible adult… Shouldn’t all those kids be treated the same,,,

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