The City University of New York’s pioneering CUNY Start program is significantly more effective than standard remedial education in preparing students who arrive at CUNY needing to master basic skills before they are ready for college-level courses, according to results from an assessment of the nine-year-old program.

“CUNY Start is a vital part of our broad and ongoing remediation reforms because it targets students with the most significant needs,” said Interim Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz. “The program is unique in its approach and a model for the country. The results of this study are very exciting. They confirm that CUNY Start is very effective in raising these students’ chances of staying and succeeding in college.”

The newly published study—a federally funded partnership between CUNY, the MDRC social policy research organization and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University—compared the progress of 3,835 randomly assigned community college freshmen whose scores on CUNY’s math, reading and writing assessment tests weren’t high enough to qualify them to take college-credit courses. Students were assigned either to CUNY Start, a pre-matriculation program that employs intensive instruction, support and carefully designed curricula, or to the standard associate-degree pathway and traditional developmental courses.

After one semester, higher percentages of the students in CUNY Start were ready to take courses required for associate degrees. The results were especially pronounced in math: Approximately 57 percent of students qualified to take college-credit math courses after completing their CUNY Start semester, compared with 25 percent of those who took traditional developmental education courses. There was a 9 percent difference between the two groups in writing proficiency and 8 percent in reading.

A second report, due out in 2020, will track the students’ long-term progress and achievement. But the interim report, which employed the gold-standard research method of random assignment of participants, validates CUNY’s internal assessments of CUNY Start.

CUNY’s long-term strategy to address the needs of students who enter college underqualified to take college-level courses includes a range of new teaching approaches and interventions. CUNY Start was devised to tackle one of the most fundamental issues: The failure of conventional remedial education to build very underprepared students’ math, reading and writing skills to the levels necessary for them to enroll and succeed in college-level courses. CUNY Start is a one-semester program that targets students with significant remedial needs. It delays enrollment in a degree program and provides, instead, intensive instruction that uses a more student-centered teaching method and carefully designed curricula delivered by trained teachers. It also integrates advising, tutoring and a weekly seminar that teaches students skills they need to succeed in college. Students pay only $75 for the program, which fully preserves financial aid for credit coursework.

“Our offer to students is, ‘Give us one semester and let us help you not just pass your skills assessment tests, but also become ready for your college coursework so you’re on more solid ground,’” said Donna Linderman, associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. “We are the only university in the country implementing a program this comprehensive in the pre-matriculation space. It’s exciting and very important to have good solid data to strongly affirm that our model is highly effective.”

Michael Weiss, one of the MDRC researchers who authored the report, said that CUNY Start is unique in several ways. “The main target is students who have needs in all three subject areas,” he said. “It’s time intensive: In the full-time program it’s 12 hours a week of math and 12 hours of reading and writing instruction. And it really tries to tackle teaching methods. A lot of remedial education is traditional ‘chalk and talk’ and teacher lectures. CUNY Start is more discussion, student questioning, and getting more actively involved in learning. What makes it work is having the extra time that makes it implementable, and the very robust system CUNY has of hiring teachers who are willing and comfortable enacting the CUNY Start approach.”