Becoming College-Ready

Early Findings from a CUNY Start Evaluation

By Susan Scrivener, Himani Gupta, Michael J. Weiss, Benjamin Cohen, Maria Scott Cormier, Jessica Brathwaite

Many students who enter community college are deemed underprepared for college-level courses and are referred to developmental (remedial) education courses to build their math, reading, or writing skills. These students often struggle in developmental courses and in college more broadly. To help them, the City University of New York (CUNY) developed CUNY Start. CUNY Start targets incoming students who are assessed as needing remediation in math, reading, and writing. The program delays college matriculation (enrollment in a degree program) for one semester and provides intensive instruction in math, reading, and writing during that semester with a prescribed instructional approach. It also provides advising, tutoring, and a weekly seminar that teaches students skills they need to succeed in college. Students pay only $75 for the program and do not use financial aid.

CUNY Start’s underlying theory of change posits that students with substantial developmental course requirements are best served through an intensive model, designed to build academic preparedness and college skills before matriculation. The program’s designers hypothesize that compared with students in standard college courses (including standard developmental education courses), a higher proportion of CUNY Start students will complete developmental education and that they will do so more quickly. Because CUNY Start students spend a semester building their basic skills before matriculating, they are expected to earn fewer college credits in the short term. Over the longer term, the expectation is that CUNY Start students will have higher retention rates (that is, more of them will stay in college), higher college-level credit accumulation, and higher graduation rates.

MDRC, CUNY, and the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, are partnering to evaluate CUNY Start using a random assignment research design, supported by a grant from the federal Institute of Education Sciences. Eligible students at four CUNY community colleges were assigned at random to the program group, whose members could participate in CUNY Start, or to the control group, whose members could receive the colleges’ standard courses and services, including standard developmental education courses. Findings in this report include:

  • CUNY Start was implemented as it was designed, and the contrast between the program and the colleges’ standard courses and services was substantial.

  • During the first semester in the study, program group students made substantially more progress through developmental education than control group students; effects were especially large in math. In contrast, during that same semester, control group students earned more college credits than program group students, as predicted by CUNY Start’s designers.

  • During the second semester, program group students enrolled at CUNY colleges (that is, participated in CUNY Start or enrolled in any non-CUNY Start courses as matriculated students) at a higher rate than control group students.

Subsequent follow-up data will be analyzed to assess sample members’ persistence in college, college credit accumulation, and graduation rates. 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.

Document Details

Publication Type
July 2018
Scrivener, Susan, Himani Gupta, Michael J. Weiss, Benjamin Cohen, Maria Scott Cormier, and Jessica Brathwaite. 2018. Becoming College-Ready. New York: MDRC.