Like many friends from her graduating class, Daranie Ounchaidee attended a community college not far from their Indianapolis high school. In the corridors, the classmates often stopped to commiserate about the twists, turns, and missteps they had already taken on their paths to associate’s degrees.
Many work part time, prolonging their time in school. Others have changed majors or dropped courses. Most, whose parents never went to college, struggle with the red tape of registering, paying, and applying for financial aid. For them, Ounchaidee says, “it’s like there’s no ending.”
But Ounchaidee is no longer among them. As part of a select group of 40 students from low-income families in which they were the first to go to college, Ounchaidee just received her two-year associate’s degree from Ivy Tech Community College in only 11 months.
These students are among the pioneers of a new movement to speed up the ever-slowing pace at which students get through college, from two years to one for associate’s degrees and four years to three for bachelor’s degrees, saving them and taxpayers money and improving low graduation rates. That’s because the longer it takes students to reach the finish line, the less likely they ever will.
Only 4 percent of community college students complete an associate’s degree within two years, and 36 percent of students at public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in four, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 60 percent of community college and more than 40 percent of university students are still flailing toward those credentials after even six years.
Among the reasons: Students right out of highly regimented high schools find themselves lost in college, need academic help but don’t know where to find it or are hesitant to ask, or work so many hours to afford tuition and life expenses such as gas and rent that they crawl through their required coursework.
The inability to devote complete attention to school seems to be a particular hurdle. Fewer than half of community college students attend full-time. Of those who are in school full-time, a fifth have full-time jobs and 40 percent have part-time jobs, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
In order to qualify for the Associate Accelerated Program, or ASAP, at Ivy Tech,attendees needed high school grade-point averages of at least 2.5, and had to pledge to attend school full-time, not work, and continue living with their parents or guardians to forestall having to contend with real-world expenses such as rent and food.
They also had no choices of what courses to take or scheduling flexibility. ASAP classes began days after high school graduation and included 60 hours a week of rigidly proscribed classes and outside assignments.
“We have their curriculum laid out from Day One,” says Jon Arbuckle, one of the instructors. “Without these guidelines, students bounce around. They’ll take a handful of classes, then some life event occurs, they take a semester off, and they’re lost.”
At the sprawling Ivy Tech, ASAP occupies its own small warren of offices and classrooms in a single building, where counselors and advisors are never farther away than across the hall.
“We give them all the support they need — often more than they need,” says Jeff Jourdan, a psychologist and former Arena Football League player who serves as the program’s coordinator and the students' de facto coach. “They’re not an island. They have people they can go to.”
In their first week, students get the sorts of basic lessons about contending with the college’s bureaucracy that can be easy to take for granted— who and what the registrar or bursar are, for instance. Colleges, Arbcukle says, “assume students coming in already know how to navigate the higher-education waters. But they don’t necessarily know that. Even the physical environment, just how it’s scattered—you’re taking a class in one building and another class in another building and your advisor is in another building.”
New students, Jourdan says, “put off the vibe of, ‘I can handle this. I’m cool.’ But underneath they’re scared, they’re nervous. This is something no one in their families has ever done.”
When the meetings shrink to one on one, these anxieties finally surface.
“We go through a lot of Kleenex,” Jordan says, tapping a box of it on his desk.
The students in ASAP say they appreciate the structure.
“That’s a good thing,” says Carrington Murry, who also just graduated with a degree in one year. “It feels like a continuation of high school. Otherwise it would have been hard to stay focused.”
Yawning at the start of an early morning course in archaeology just a few weeks shy of getting their degrees, the ASAP students lugged heavy backpacks to their seats, asked perceptive questions, and filled in latecomers about the assignments. The other classes they had to take included English composition, American history, critical thinking, ethics, algebra, earth science, sociology, interpersonal communication, psychology, and economics.
All the students agree the program wasn't easy, and some say their parents were skeptical at the outset. Ounchaidee says her parents, who are Thai and Laotian, were reluctant to let her go to college because they rely on her to help them communicate in English. They came around when she convinced them of the opportunity. “They told me that if I wanted a better life, they’d give it a chance,” she says.
ASAP is part of a wave of programs, many with similarly catchy acronyms, to fast-track college students. They include the Accelerated Higher Education Associate Degree, or AHEAD, at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, and the Accelerated Study in Associate Program, also called ASAP, at the City University of New York.
Since 2009, about 20 private four-year colleges and universities, most recently Wesleyan in Connecticut, have started offering three-year bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. So have public universities including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Mississippi State University, Miami University of Ohio, and some campuses of the State University of New York.
Eighty-six percent of Ivy Tech’s ASAP students earn their degrees on time, or at least remain enrolled, the college says. That’s a rate five times higher than for their counterparts in the standard program. The condensed time frame also saves the students money: the one-year degree costs $7,119, most of which can be covered by federal Pell grants and state financial aid. That fast-track approach also reduces the cost per degree for taxpayers, since students who graduate on time don't continue to use taxpayer subsidies while they slog through additional years in public colleges and universities, according to a Columbia University study of the CUNY program.
ASAP began in 2010, and Ivy Tech doesn’t have reliable data to know how graduates have done since finishing the program, but some are majoring at four-year universities in fields including engineering, business, graphic design, and architecture.
"These are amazingly bright kids," says Jourdan. "Imagine what they could have done with the resources other kids have.”
Ounchaidee has been accepted to study biomedical engineering at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where she will begin August.
“It’s a good thing,” she says of her speeded-up associate’s degree. “Without it, I would probably just be working. It gives me plans and hope.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.