Catapulting New Yorkers into the middle class, ASAP

Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Catapulting New Yorkers into the middle class, ASAP

Catapulting New Yorkers into the middle class, ASAP
February 14, 2016

Over the past several years, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have put New York at the forefront of efforts to reduce income inequality, announcing initiatives such as universal prekindergarten, paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage for public-sector workers. These are all hugely important policy innovations. But I’m keeping my eye on another inequality initiative, one rolled out late last year to little fanfare but which could turn out to be one of the most effective efforts in New York, and the nation, to catapult people into the middle class.

I’m talking about CUNY’s plan to enroll virtually all full-time students at Bronx Community College in CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, an initiative that has proven to be amazingly effective in increasing community college graduation rates.

CUNY ASAP, which provides community college students with free tuition, textbooks, MetroCards and regular contact with an adviser, is one of the most widely acclaimed educational initiatives in recent memory. The respected research organization MDRC evaluated an ASAP pilot project and found that it nearly doubled participants’ three-year graduation rates. “ASAP’s effects after three years are the most positive MDRC has found in over a decade of research in higher education,” the authors said.

The program’s potential is clear. Community colleges have become key platforms for mobility at a time when a high school diploma is no longer enough to guarantee a decent-paying job. Yet these institutions are failing to fulfill their vast potential because so few of their students actually graduate with an associate degree or transfer to a four-year university. Just over one-third of first-time full-time community college freshmen statewide graduate within six years. In New York City, the six-year graduation rate at community colleges is 29 percent.

ASAP has achieved far higher marks by offering students an integrated package of support that continues from enrollment to graduation. Students participating in ASAP agree to study full time and see an adviser regularly. In return, CUNY guarantees payment of tuition and fees, books and transportation; provides intensive academic advising, as well as tutoring support for students with developmental needs; and makes available special linked courses and a seminar that builds college knowledge.

The challenge has always been figuring out how to scale CUNY ASAP. Until now, the program has served just 4,000 students a year.

Now, CUNY is laying the groundwork to bring the ASAP model to more than 25,000 students, including an entire community college. Over the next several years, CUNY plans to raise the three-year graduation rate at Bronx Community College from its current level of about 11 percent to 50 percent, an incredibly ambitious goal. If successful, Bronx Community College would attain one of the nation’s highest community college graduation rates. Each year roughly 600 additional college graduates, from some of the nation’s poorest families, would walk across the commencement stage and then enter the skilled workforce.

If CUNY expanded ASAP and related programs to all of its community colleges, it could add over 5,000 college graduates annually to the workforce, with impressive benefits not only to the students, but to employer competitiveness and community prosperity.

The primary obstacle is cost. ASAP costs about 40 percent more per enrolled student, and the upcoming expansion required New York City to find an additional $42 million. A citywide expansion would cost much more, an extremely difficult lift that is only more challenging at a time when CUNY is struggling to settle a labor contract with its faculty and lobbying hard to maintain level funding from the state.

Expanding the program will require Cuomo and the state Legislature to make long-overdue revisions to how the state finances its higher education system. Currently, the state’s college financing system rewards community colleges for enrolling students but not for graduating them. This needs to change.

Ever since New York state first chartered its community colleges, it has paid them on a per-enrolled-student basis, which effectively rewards colleges for enrolling more students and punishes them for spending more to help those students succeed. Yet ASAP is actually less expensive than the status quo when measured by cost per graduate. The fact is that there is nothing sacred about New York’s traditional funding mechanism. Other states are experimenting with creative financing approaches, and New York could too.

We should reward colleges like Bronx Community College that are doing the right thing for their students – getting them to graduation as quickly as possible without diminishing the rigor of their academic experience. At the same time, the state Legislature should reject Cuomo’s recent proposal to cut almost $500 million in annual state funding to CUNY and shifts the cost to the city. Adopting this proposal will almost certainly lead to a net reduction in public funding for CUNY, jeopardizing some existing programs and making it virtually impossible to scale up innovative initiatives like ASAP.

Instead, the state should work to boost graduation rates at CUNY’s colleges and universities. That would change the lives of thousands of disadvantaged young people and take a giant step toward reducing inequality in New York.

Tom Hilliard is a senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future, an independent think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity and growing the economy in New York City. For more, go to or @nycfuture.

Tom Hilliard
is senior fellow for economic opportunity at the Center for an Urban Future.
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