There’s compelling evidence that community college graduation rates can be improved through supporting students in myriad ways. The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) created by the City University of New York provides tuition waivers, free use of textbooks, public transit passes, assured access to advisors, career/employment services, and tutoring. A rigorous evaluation conducted by MDRC concluded that this support increased ASAP participants graduation rates 10 percentage points higher than similar students.
While some community colleges outside of CUNY’s orbit have begun implementing ASAP-inspired support programs, the promising interventions aren't cheap. The ASAP outlay at CUNY is in the neighborhood of $14,000 a student, and policymakers should want to know whether such investments are warranted by a thorough consideration of both costs and benefits. Henry Levin and Emma Garcia provided just this information in a recent article in The Journal of Higher Education. For each taxpayer dollar invested, they found, ASAP returned $3 or $4 in the form of higher tax revenues—graduates tend to get better jobs and pay more taxes—and lower spending on public assistance, criminal justice, and public health.
ASAP-like programs may be a prime example of why David Cutler, a leading health economist, recently wrote in a Politico op-ed, “The most cost-effective dollar in health is the one spent on education.” Benefit-cost analyses like the one mentioned here, or others archived by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, can help the education sector behave more like the healthcare sector, where, as FutureEd research advisor Douglas Harris reminds us, combined information on impact and cost are more likely to inform policy.