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Helping College Students Graduate Debt Free and on Time

Indiana community college students can earn Associate's degrees in a year through an accelerated program known as ASAP

Tré Robinson, 20, is the son of a single mom. A year and a half ago, he made his mother proud by graduating from Indiana’s state community college, Ivy Tech, with an associate’s degree in computer networking. He finished school debt-free and landed a full-time job working in IT. “I have a health plan, and I just took a 15-day cruise to the Caribbean for vacation,” Robinson says.

Robinson is one of the success stories of the Associate Accelerated Program, known as ASAP, a radical new approach to higher education. The program puts low-income students on the path to a higher degree by enrolling them in an intensive, accelerated curriculum at Ivy Tech. ASAP students take double the normal course load and are expected to complete a two-year degree in half the time. ASAP pays the students a weekly $100 stipend, enough to cover phone, food and gas money; students also typically qualify for a combination of state and federal loans that allow them to graduate without debt. To enroll in ASAP, students must pledge to take it seriously — they agree not to work during the school week, so they can focus on their studies full time.

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The program is aimed at low-income students because, according to Mike Smith, a philanthropist and member of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education who first conceived of the idea, “I believe that the way to break the cycle of poverty in America is through education. I also believe that for America to remain relevant and competitive, we need to have a better prepared workforce.”

Robinson earned his associate’s degree just a year out of high school, and the salary he’s earning now helps cover expenses at the Indianapolis home he shares with his mother, who works as a paralegal. (His father died when Tré was 4 years old.) “I feel like it gave me a great head start on people my age. I have a lot of friends who went to Purdue, and they are about $60,000 to $70,000 in debt,” Robinson says of ASAP, whose graduates are also eligible to transfer to a four-year college to pursue their bachelor’s degrees.

Since ASAP launched in 2010, funded by a $2.34 million grant from the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to higher education, it has graduated 139 students with associate’s degrees in liberal arts, business administration and computer networking. Of the 233 students who enrolled in the program in its first three years, 69 percent finished within a year, according to ASAP. Across the United States, in comparison, just 58 percent of students who start college at a two-year public institution complete any postsecondary degree within six years, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

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Carrie Warick, director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network, notes that over the next decade, 65 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require a degree beyond a high school diploma, so programs that help students obtain those degrees are especially critical. While Ivy Tech’s highly structured, accelerated program is one promising model, there are other more accommodating programs that offer flexible class structures and provide child care on campus — such as those offered at the City University of New York — that also work well, says Warick.

Key to ASAP’s success, however, is the togetherness fostered by the program’s intensity. Because students take all their classes with other ASAP participants and are required to be on campus at least from 9 to 5 every weekday, they tend to develop close bonds as they work on group projects, study and hang out together. Faculty advisers meet regularly with students as well to help keep them on track. “We do whatever it takes to get them through. We put our arms around them for a year, and we love them up for a year,” says Jeff Jourdan, ASAP’s program chair at the Indianapolis campus, adding, “We aren’t just trying to churn out graduates and say, ‘See you later.’ We care about the success of these students.”

With a 40-plus-hour study week, ASAP participants need all the support they can get. “I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be,” says Carrington Murry, 19, who is currently enrolled in the liberal arts curriculum. “There’s a lot of all-nighters you have to pull,” he adds. But whereas in high school, he says he was earning B’s and C’s, he currently has a 3.6 GPA. When he first applied in high school to Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., he didn’t get accepted and thought he wouldn’t go to college at all. Now, after finishing ASAP, he expects to transfer to Ball State as a junior and earn his bachelor’s degree with a focus on film and television broadcasting. All told, it will take him three years to get his college degree, versus the standard four-year schedule.

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Ivy Tech plans to expand its accelerated program, thanks to a second, $2.23 million grant from Lumina that the college is matching with $3.1 million of its own. Over the next three years, the college will bring ASAP to 14 campuses across the state — up from the four it is on now — and offer it to any student, regardless of family income, who can handle its rigorous course load. The expansion will allow an estimated 1,010 more students to enroll by 2016. But how will the program sustain itself after that? Ivy Tech President Thomas Snyder says officials are evaluating ways to keep ASAP afloat without private grants.

The Lumina Foundation’s overall goal is to increase the proportion of Americans with degrees or professional certificates that will help them find jobs, from 38.7 percent today to 60 percent by 2025. In order to do so, “Indiana needs to produce 10,000 more high-quality degrees and certificates per year. My goal would be to have the Ivy Tech program produce between one-quarter and one-half of those,” says Mike Smith, who is also a trustee at the nonprofit.

He says he also hopes that the ASAP program will become a model across the country, allowing a whole generation of young people to fulfill their very own American dreams.

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Push for programs like the Associate Accelerated Program in your community.

Ivy Tech's Associate Accelerated Program puts low-income students on the path to a higher degree through and intensive, accelerated curriculum. Like what you see? Let your representative know. Maybe they need a little inspiration to implement something like this in your state.

How can we help community college students succeed? Inspiration: #ivytechasap

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Anita Hamilton is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers business, lifestyle and a variety of offbeat, quirky topics. She has also written for Time, Businessweek, Fast Company, CNET and Time Out New York.

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