Student support program doubles graduation rates

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Sometimes college students need extra help to get through to graduation. Maybe they need tuition assistance, or money for textbooks. Maybe they need a metro card to get to school, a well-timed phone call to remind them of upcoming tests, some focused tutoring, or a word of encouragement during a particularly challenging moment.


group photoAFT member Vickie O'Shea, fourth from left, poses with her graduating students at Queensborough Community College.

That’s exactly what the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs gives students at the City University of New York, and the program has been a game-changer, helping otherwise marginalized students stay on track. Graduation rates among those who have participated have more than doubled: Among ASAP students, the graduation rate was 53.2 percent, while a comparison group of non-ASAP students graduated at a rate of 24.1 percent. CUNY also reported that the average cost of the program was modest and actually saved an average of $6,500 per graduate when compared with the cost of educating non-ASAP students.  

Those are the sorts of statistics the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s faculty-staff union, likes to champion. “No program that I know of better exemplifies elements of what this university needs in order for students to succeed,” PSC Legislative Representative Mike Fabricant says. “This is a program that understands that access and success is not just about free tuition. It’s also about metro cards. It’s about books, and it is about intensive counseling, advising and mentoring from faculty.”

The PSC, whose members include ASAP student advisers, has pressed hard for continued ASAP funding at the city and state levels, and has also advocated for the expansion of the Accelerate, Complete, Engage program, a similar program designed for four-year colleges and currently in a pilot format at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Advocacy by the union and its coalition partners in the CUNY Rising Alliance—a coalition of labor, community and student organizations—has helped elevate ASAP in the conversation about college funding. By testifying at CUNY Board of Trustees meetings, running a petition campaign, holding a day of action, and continuing to pressure city and state officials to write this successful program into their budgets, the alliance has successfully pushed back against proposed cuts to state funding for ASAP and helped win increased funding from New York City.


graduateSelma Skrijelj participated in the ASAP program and graduated from Queens College magna cum laude.

Selma Skrijelj knows what a difference that could make. Like many ASAP students, Skrijelj (pronounced SKREE-el) is the first in her family to attend college. Her parents are refugees from the former Yugoslavia and survived the Bosnian War; though they did not have the opportunity to earn university degrees, they instilled in her the importance of a good education. “For me education is everything,” says Skrijelj. “From a very young age I was told that knowledge is the one thing that no one can take away from you.”

Skrijelj started attending LaGuardia Community College, but a serious car accident nearly derailed her plans. ASAP was there with tuition dollars, guidance and support from “amazing advisers, mentors and professors,” she says. They kept her on track, helping her outline her goals, prioritize and search for classes, and navigate CUNY websites to sign up for what she needed. Those skills served her well when she transferred to Queens College, where she graduated magna cum laude.

“Being part of ASAP made me feel that I was never alone,” says Skrijelj. “I always felt that I had a place to go to, whether I needed emotional support or an extra push to make me work harder.”

Skrijelj’s story is not uncommon, says Vickie O’Shea, an ASAP student adviser at Queensborough Community College and a PSC member. Since she began working with ASAP in 2012, she’s seen hundreds of students and advised them on everything from career choices to mental health care. “I tell students I’m like their parent at school,” says O’Shea.

In a diverse college system like CUNY, the variety of challenges students face is vast: O’Shea helped one undocumented student determine her eligibility for a nursing program. She advised another, who had lost her home, to take a semester off while she stabilized her housing situation. She’s helped students navigate responsibility for younger siblings, and she’s worked schedules around students’ parenting responsibilities. She’s also helped with “mocktail” receptions, where students can practice networking skills, and she’s conducted workshops on test anxiety.

O’Shea has seen life-changing results through her work with ASAP. That’s why her union and the CUNY Rising Alliance continue to fight to fund it and have been advocating to expand it to include four-year college students. “It does make a huge difference,” says O’Shea.

[Virginia Myers]