Why This Funder Is Getting Behind a New Strategy to Fight High College Dropout Rates

Although the number of Americans enrolling in colleges is reaching record numbers, far too many are leaving without completing any type of degree or other credential. In many four-year colleges and universities, slightly more than half of entering students walk out with a diploma. The situation is even more depressing at community colleges, where only a third of students graduate.

And to make things worse, many of these dropouts are walking away with loans to repay. 

For all the emphasis on ensuring that K-12 students graduate college-ready, the sad fact is that too many students arrive on campus without sufficient preparation. But the problem goes beyond just academic preparedness or financial wherewithal, with social and institutional factors also coming into play.

Students at elite institutions such as Harvard and Northwestern have 90 percent likelihood of graduating in four years. Yes, these schools are filled with the cream of the nation's educational crop, but they also field armies of advisors and support staff to assist students who encounter problems during their higher education career.

So, if this type of support is good enough for our best and brightest, why not extend such support to underrepresented students from low-income families and ethnic minority groups? That's what Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty thought, and the funder has just committed $5 million in grant funds to help three Ohio community colleges replicate an intervention that is being touted as a model for boosting college graduation rates.

The program, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), began at the City University of New York's community college campuses. CUNY took aim at its community college dropout rate about six years ago and unveiled ASAP, which combines financial and other types of support. The program covers tuition that isn't paid by federal or state grants, pays for public transit, and gives students free use of textbooks. Students also receive enhanced advising and academic support.

Six years later, the results have shown promise. An evaluation by the social policy research firm MDRC found that 56 percent of ASAP participants of the first two cohorts of students graduated, compared to only 23 percent among a comparison group that did not receive the services.

Great Lakes is supporting MDRC with $5 million to replicate the ASAP program at Cincinnati State Technical College, Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, and Lorain County Community College in Elyria. In return for a commitment to attend college full time, ASAP participants at these Ohio colleges will receive tuition waivers to cover gaps in financial aid, enhanced academic advising and faculty feedback, textbook vouchers, early registration, and various forms of financial support, such as monthly gas cards. ASAP participants must participate in required support services and enroll in any developmental or remedial courses they are required to take.

Great Lakes is no stranger to funding programs that are designed to improve college readiness and success among at-risk students in the Upper Midwest. Readers of IP may remember the funder awarding nearly $9 million this past summer for a range of programs at dozens of colleges in a four-state area.

This latest project from Great Lakes is another sign of what many higher education funders are looking for: Programs with evidence of success that have the potential to be scaled upward or replicated in other settings.