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CUNY Start Program Gives Remedial Students a Low-Cost Boost

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A new report that examined the impact of the City University of New York (CUNY) "Start" program has found that it's working. Start offers an inexpensive replacement for students who would normally enter remedial college courses to build their math, reading and writing skills. Instead of taking those classes and draining their financial aid for non-credit courses, students delay their college entry for a semester, attend the $75 Start program and get an intensive push in those areas, along with advising, tutoring and weekly help in developing their study skills.

CUNY is working with social policy researcher MDRC and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College to assess the effectiveness of the Start program. The work is being supported by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences.

The Start offer to students is this, said Donna Linderman, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs: "Give us one semester and let us help you not just pass your skills assessment tests, but also become ready for your college coursework so you're on more solid ground."

For the study, some 3,835 students at four CUNY community colleges were randomly assigned to the program group, in which they accepted that offer and participated in CUNY Start, or to the control group, in which they received "standard courses and services," including non-credit developmental education courses. Participants for both groups were chosen because their scores on CUNY's math, reading and writing assessment tests weren't high enough to qualify them to take college-credit courses.

According to an interim report by MDRC, a "full-time" version of the program provides about 26 hours of instruction per week during its one semester: 12 hours of math, 12 hours of integrated reading and writing and between one and two hours in a college success seminar. The instructional model includes more active learning, with an emphasis on student questioning. A part-time version delivers 12 hours of instruction in either math or reading and writing and one-and-a-half hours of seminar time. In neither scenario is the student also allowed to take credit-bearing courses.

According to the study, during the first semester, those in Start "made substantially more progress through developmental education than control group students." The effects were particularly "striking" in math: About 57 percent of students qualified to take college-credit math courses after completing their CUNY Start semester, compared to 25 percent of those who took the traditional developmental education courses. There was a nine percentage point difference between the two groups in writing proficiency and an eight point difference in reading.

The control group students, on the other hand, earned more college credits, as would be expected.

During the second semester, the program group students enrolled at CUNY colleges either as Start participants or regular students at a higher rate than control group students.

The research will continue with an MDRC analysis of college persistence rates, college credit accumulation and graduation rates, as well as costs related to the program. Those results will be shared in a second report due in 2020. The Community College Research Center is also expected to publish two papers focused on CUNY Start's math curriculum, as well as the pedagogy and its staffing and professional development model. And CUNY itself has promised to develop a tool kit on its Start implementation and share best practices, with a focus on the university system's use of data for forging and refining the program.

As an executive summary concluded, if CUNY Start's "short-term trade-off results in the hypothesized longer-term gains, the program will serve as an important model for serving students with substantial developmental course requirements."

The program "is a vital part of our broad and ongoing remediation reforms because it targets students with the most significant needs," said CUNY Interim Chancellor Vita Rabinowitz, in a statement. "The results of this study are very exciting. They confirm that CUNY Start is very effective in raising these students' chances of staying and succeeding in college."

The results of the latest study are available on the MDRC website. The Start program home is on the CUNY website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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