By Michael A. MacDowell
With President Obama calling for greater access to college, it is more important than ever for the public to understand the issue is not just getting students into college, but keeping them there. In a recent article in the New York Times, David L. Krip, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed the Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP) at the City University of New York (CUNY). Designed for community college students, it provides a package of comprehensive financial resources, student support systems, and a variety of other personalized approaches that are designed to increase student retention.
Without ASAP, only 27 percent of CUNY students graduate on time.
For those of us who have been involved in higher education for many years, we find this revelation hardly surprising. Faculty and administrators at America's colleges and universities understand that students will graduate at a much higher rate if professors and staff take an interest in them.
Most college students do not graduate on time. In fact, a first-year student who entered a four-year college in the fall of 2013 has about a 40-percent chance of graduating in four years. Increasing access will probably only lessen the percent of students who graduate on time. That is a shame. For every additional year a student spends in obtaining a college degree, it represents a significant expense to not only the student and his or her family, but to federal and state taxpayers as well.
CUNY's ASAP has discovered what smaller private institutions have known for decades: Treat students as people, not as Social Security numbers, and they will respond with better retention rates. ASAP is icing on the cake, so to speak, as it is not baked into the batter. In other words, individualized student attention is not part of the culture of large institutions.
Most college students are not in either the large CUNY-type colleges or the Ivy Leagues to which Mr. Krip also refers. Rather, most college students are enrolled in large state-owned institutions that tend to have poor on-time graduation rates because they lack the individual attention that helps students thrive. A much smaller percentage – about 20 percent – of American students attend the smaller private institutions that have offered individualized attention to its students for years. Students at these smaller privates have significantly better on-time graduation rates. Some of them also have well-structured career development programs that help to assure a student's success upon graduation.
At Misericordia University, students also receive the benefit of guaranteed placement. Students who maintain a minimum 3.0 grade point average and complete a variety of career preparation activities in the Guaranteed Placement Program will receive a paid internship in their field of study if they are not enrolled in graduate school or employed six months after graduation. These internships almost always lead to a full-time job.
Undergraduate programs that treat students in ways that keep them in college are not inexpensive. ASAP costs tax payers in New York an additional $3,900 per student annually, according to the New York Times. Many smaller private colleges work diligently at keeping tuition at reasonable rates and provide significant scholarships for deserving students. Scholarships and institutional aid support this kind of personal attention at private institutions of higher education, while at CUNY – it is all on the taxpayer.
It is admirable that CUNY is willing to make the additional investment on top of the already heavy costs incurred by New York taxpayers. Since the public is picking up most of the tab, though, they should also know that smaller private institutions have been providing this personalized approach to student success for many years at very little cost to them. As a result, they have one of the highest graduation rates in the country.
Retention rates are an oftentimes overlooked aspect of attaining a college degree. Increasing them by providing individualized attention is an expensive and difficult proposition for large public universities that historically have treated their students like Social Security numbers.
Michael A. MacDowell, a resident of Harveys Lake, Pa., is the past president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., and is also the managing director of the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation.