One of the things about increasing post-secondary participation is that the cost of improving access increases all of the time – as you get closer to universality, the students you want to attract becoming increasingly marginal, academically, and require greater investments in order for them to succeed.
A really good example of this comes from the City University of New York (CUNY), which recently completed an evaluation of its Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which is meant to encourage completion among students taking Associate (i.e. 2-year) degrees at the school, on a full-time basis. The program design is pretty much what you’d expect: it tops-up financial aid so that net cost is zero, plus throws in textbooks and a transit pass. Each student gets a personal advisor/mentor/coach, as well as career counselling. Participants get grouped together in small classes (25 students, or less), and the classes are block-booked so that students can take all their courses either in the morning, afternoon, or evening (of great assistance to students with work or family responsibilities).
This is not a cheap program. At the time the program was being evaluated, it cost over $4,000 per student, per year, though the cost later fell towards $3,500 per student as the program ramped-up. In the context of US 2-year colleges, such as the nine CUNY community colleges at which this program was implemented, and where per-student expenditure is about $8,000 per student, this is a heck of a lot of money. But it works. MDRC, one of the world’s top social science research organizations, evaluated the project recently using a random-assignment experiment, and found that ASAP’s effects on a range of outcome measures were “the largest it (had) found in any of its evaluations of community college reforms”.
The evaluation (executive summary available here) showed that 40.1% of program participants graduated within three years, compared to just 21.8% of students from the control group, and 25.1% had enrolled in a four-year college by semester 6, compared to just 17.3% in the control group (though many American community colleges offer more technical programs, the colleges at which the program was implemented mostly offered arts programs designed as pathways to 4-year colleges, so this metric is actually quite important, because completion without continuation to a 4-year college is of substantially lower value to the student).
Now, that’s a pretty impressive-sounding statistic: for $4,000/year, ASAP can almost double the graduation rate. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: in fact, it takes $14,000, spread over 3 years, to achieve this effect. And even with a doubling, the program is really only affecting one-out-of-five students; one-fifth of students would have graduated anyway, and another three-fifths still don’t graduate. So to produce one extra graduate, you actually have to spend something in the neighbourhood of $50,000 or so (it’s not actually 5 x $14,000, because you stop spending money once a student drops out). That’s a lot of money to get one extra graduate, especially for a general Associate degree, where both public and private returns are quite low.
This is by no means a criticism of ASAP: it’s a good program delivering excellent results. But it does go to show how much money it takes to move the needle on degree completion. That’s not all going to come from new government sources; it’s going to require changes in institutional business models to reduce costs in order to put more money into things like counselling, advising, and support.