BREAKING: Investing in students helps them succeed

David Kirp takes to the New York Times today to discuss a reform to improve college student success that actually works:

American students are enrolling in college in record numbers, but they’re also dropping out in droves. Barely half of those who start four-year colleges, and only a third of community college students, graduate. That’s one of the worst records among developed nations, and it’s a substantial drain on the economy. […]

There’s a remedy at hand, though, and it’s pretty straightforward. Nationwide, universities need to give undergraduates the care and attention akin to what’s lavished on students at elite institutions.

In other words: if you invest in students the resources they need to get through college, they’ll succeed.

In particular, Kirp discusses the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative, where disadvantaged students are provided with financial assistance for tuition, transit, and books and receive intensive support from faculty and academic support personnel, among other things. The results for the initiative are nothing short of amazing:

56 percent of the first two cohorts of more than 1,500 students have graduated, compared with just 23 percent of a comparable group that didn’t have the same experience. What’s more, most of those graduates are currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

No fancy tech fixes. No flashy ranking systems. Just an investment in students and in the people and services that can help them succeed. It’s the exact sort of “reform” for which we’ve been advocating.

Kirp goes on to make the following point:

Where a student goes makes all the difference. Consider a Chicago public high school graduate with a grade-point average of 3.5. If she enrolls at Chicago State University, a Washington Monthly investigation shows, the odds against her finishing are high — the school’s six-year graduation rate hovers at 20 percent. Her chances measurably improve if she attends the University of Illinois at Chicago, where the completion rate is 57 percent. And if she goes to Northwestern, just a few miles away, 93 percent of her classmates will graduate.

So what accounts for these dramatic differences in graduation rates for the aforementioned universities? We pulled some data regarding expenditures per FTE from AFT’s Higher Education Data Center (a tremendous resource, drawing from IPEDS data, for those who aren’t familiar) for Chicago State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Northwestern University for the 2010-11 academic year, and here’s what we found (definitions for the categories can be found on the linked pages):

Expenditures per FTE on Instruction:

    • Chicago State University: $11,428
    • University of Illinois at Chicago: $23,170
    • Northwestern University: $32,018

Expenditures per FTE on Academic Support:

    • Chicago State University: $2,238
    • University of Illinois at Chicago: $5,406
    • Northwestern University: $9,311

Expenditures per FTE on Student Services:

    • Chicago State University: $2,257
    • University of Illinois at Chicago: $1,785
    • Northwestern University: $7,385

Expenditures per FTE on Institutional Support:

    • Chicago State University: $2,776
    • University of Illinois at Chicago: $1,787
    • Northwestern University: $13,517

Noticing a pattern? The school with the 93% 6-year graduation rate is spending roughly 3 to 6 times more per full-time student in these categories than the school with the 20% graduation rate. The correlation in the first two categories, instruction and academic support, is especially significant: when you invest in the things students need – high quality instructors, counselors, tutors, libraries – students succeed. Now, is this to suggest that if Chicago State were to magically match Northwestern’s per FTE expenditures, we’d see a similar graduate rate? Probably not, as the two schools serve markedly different student populations. But the evidence from CUNY’s ASAP initiative is unequivocal – investment matters, especially investment in students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the institutions that serve them. Increased investment dramatically increases the chances of these students getting a degree.

Naysayers will, of course, complain that this will cost more money. Well, yeah. But again, this is an investment, and as Kirp notes, the evidence from CUNY suggests that the return on this investment will pay for itself many times over:

An evaluation last year by the economist Henry M. Levin, a co-director of Teachers College, Columbia University’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education, and Emma García, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., concludes that although ASAP isn’t cheap — the program costs, on average, $3,900 per student each year — it’s a solid investment for New York City’s taxpayers. Dr. Levin and Dr. García calculate that the total lifetime benefits — from increased tax revenues as well as savings in crime, welfare and health costs — are a whopping $205,514 per associate degree graduate.

This isn’t rocket science. If you invest in students, especially in students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they’re more likely to succeed. And their success not only benefits them, it benefits all of us.

[Chris Goff]

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