Surviving and Thriving in College

by Cathy N. Davidson

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I have a pet peeve. I find myself annoyed whenever I hear pundits criticize higher education on the grounds that "only half of students graduate in four years." The implication is that college education is somehow failing and we need a better system. Well, I agree we need a better system-much better. We need a better system of higher education; we need a far more equitable social system-and we need better ways of evaluating data. In this case, when we examine that 50 percent number, we discover there are vast differences in graduation rates between our richest and poorest institutions. At the most elite and expensive institutions, the so-called "Ivies Plus," the graduation rate hovers about 95 percent. At some of the nation's poorest institutions -- where the students come from the most stressed backgrounds and where the school itself is underfunded -- the four-year graduation rate might be 10 to 20 percent. To seriously and wisely address the issue of how we should change college to ensure student success, we must be attentive to these wide-ranging differences. And we must be acutely sensitive to the extreme challenges facing many of the 18 million people in college today.

The reason material differences matter so much to completion rates can be boiled down to one key factor shared by all college students: voluntarism. Unlike elementary and secondary school, you are not required by law to attend college. That students make the sustained commitment of time, money, and attention required to stay in college long enough to graduate is remarkable in every circumstance, especially with soaring tuitions and uncertain futures. We humans aren't very good at persisting at that which may be "good for us" in the long run but that is not immediately gratifying. Gym memberships are the classic example. The business model of gyms is based on the assumption that 80 percent of us who pay for a yearlong membership in January will not set foot in the gym by March. However, for literally millions of college students, we add to the basic motivational obstacle some of the most pressing imaginable material conditions, including food insecurity and homelessness. It is hard to imagine any other time in life where one has to have more self-will to stay the course against obstacles so formidable on the promise -- not the guarantee -- of a possible better future.

I emphasize this because I do not begrudge the "climbing walls" or other luxuries so often touted in the press as features of costly, elite, private education today. Students graduating from high school this year would have been five or six years old on September 11, 2001 when the world changed. They have lived their entire lives under the cloud of trauma: terrorism, war, the 2008 financial collapse, climate change, a parade of environmental disasters, radical income inequality, discriminatory policing laws, disruption of professions, and relative nonchalance -- rather than a unified sense of national emergency -- about the possibility that the world's most powerful democracy could have had its presidential election hacked and influenced by an unfriendly nation. Is any academic surprised to learn from the reports released in the last few years from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health that the number of students seeking mental health services on campus has increased by some thirty percent in the past five years, along with hospitalizations, medication use, and suicide attempts?

To ensure that students thrive at our residential, four-year institutions requires support from a battery of advisors and health professionals as well as an array of opportunities fitted to every kind of student -- extracurricular enticements ranging from exciting intellectual activities, experiential research opportunities, and professional internships, to an array of entertainment, arts, sports, and social activities. Along with soaring tuition costs, these have become the staples that help our students thrive today.

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But what about the students at our least-funded institutions, students who themselves come from the most stressed situations. How do they thrive? They, of course, are the majority of students in college today. As President Gail Mellow of LaGuardia Community College noted in a powerful opinion piece in the New York Times, "The Biggest Misconception About Today's College Students," some 40 percent of students today go to community college, over half of undergraduates live at home, and some forty percent of students work 30 hours a week or more. A quarter of students in college today work full-time and go to school full-time, and about the same number are over 25 and are single parents.

In addressing poor graduation rates, our most stressed universities and colleges must increasingly look not just to educational opportunities but to the sometimes dire material conditions of their students. It's not just lower or free tuition that is needed but support far beyond tuition costs to help students thrive. More and more colleges and universities, for example, now offer open food pantries on campus. At least one urban community college has purchased a bankrupt motel and turned it into temporary, residential housing for students.

The program that has had perhaps the greatest success in the country helping community college students does so through combined attention to both material and educational needs. This is ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associates Programs), at the City University of New York, under the leadership of Dean John Mogulescu. Its motto says it all: "We have your back. And your books. And your Metro Card." When you live at or near the poverty line, the $2.75 train ride to school can mean that you don't eat that day. ASAP ensures students don't have to make that choice.

To enter the ASAP program, you must be a full-time student. However, since most of the students hold down full-time jobs while in school, the program ensures that special sections of required courses will be offered at times that seem unusual but that, in fact, have been proven to be most desirable to those who have 9-5 jobs or who have young children in school. ASAP also invests in advisors who help students with everything from course selection to study habits. Students join the program in cohorts and take certain classes as a cohort in order to enjoy the peer mentoring, team spirit, and camaraderie that help contribute to the success of students living on campus in dorms. The program also offers short-term loans for when a check doesn't come or when there is a family emergency.

One key to ASAP's success is that, instead of evaluating at the end, every new experiment is accompanied by evaluation that is built into the design of the project. Parallel courses are run without the new feature to serve as a control group, data is kept and analyzed, and feedback from professors and students is constantly solicited. Mogulescu emphasizes that students themselves are the most informed about what's working and their insights are key to the program's success.

By attending to the whole student, ASAP has tripled the graduation rate of its students, from 10-20 percent to over 50 percent at some community colleges where it has been established. Because students are graduating more rapidly than budgeted for, the program -- even with the additional material and advising supports it offers -- actually saves money, rather than loses it, for CUNY.

America ranks first in the world in the percentage of students it sends to college but 17th in the percentage it graduates. Pundits pontificating on how to help students succeed need to consider the particular challenges of students today and at every institution. There is no magic bullet, no one-size-fits-all solution to student success. However, one thing is sure: successful change does not reside in some expensive, edtech solution that promises to miraculously improve the nation's graduation rate overnight. That's a chimera. Real change might be something as basic and essential as Metro cards.