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Venture Philanthropy / Catalytic Giving

Kingsborough Community College SPARK Program

In 2017, the foundation provided a third grant to Kingsborough Community College (KCC), one of seven City University of New York (CUNY) two-year colleges with open enrollment, to support its innovative Strategic Partnerships for Achievement and Retention at Kingsborough (SPARK) program.

SPARK is designed to close the educational and employment gap of at-risk students in need of developmental education so that they can complete their education at KCC and be either ready to transfer to a four-year CUNY institution or prepared for job entry. The SPARK model provides a range of customized financial, academic, and personal support to both incoming and continuing students, as well as comprehensive case management, including Single Stop services.

Incoming students receive support through innovative Learning Communities, work with an assigned, dedicated, on-campus case manager throughout their college experience at KCC, and have intensive resources in place to address math, reading, and writing remediation requirements. Continuing students have access to assigned case managers who holistically address financial, academic, and personal challenges to college retention, and receive placement in new Learning Communities designed exclusively for continuing students’ career readiness and exploration.

Students recruited for SPARK generally received the lowest scores on the CUNY reading, writing, and math entrance exams and were placed into the lowest level English and math courses. Yet they have shown dramatic results due to their participation in the program. Retention rates and performance among all SPARK cohorts have been significantly higher than among other KCC freshman populations:

Fall 2016 Cohort

  • 91.1% first semester-to-second semester retention rate
  • 82.9% year-to-year retention rate (surpassing the initial goal of 77%)
  • 54.5% of English cohort students completed the English developmental course sequence, compared to 36% of Fall 2015 non-SPARK developmental English students.
  • Math cohort students completed the math developmental course at significantly higher rates than non-SPARK students.

Fall 2017 Cohort

  • 63.8% fall-to-fall retention rate, which is higher than retention rates for non-SPARK developmental students at 58.2%

Spring 2017 Cohort

  • 93.3% first semester-to-second semester retention rate
  • 80% of English cohort students completed the English developmental course sequence, compared to 36% of Fall 2015 non-SPARK developmental English students.
  • Math cohort students completed the math developmental course at significantly higher rates than non-SPARK students.

Spring 2018 Cohort

  • 73.6% semester-to-semester retention rate compared to 69.8% for other freshmen enrolled in the same courses

Although we do not have six-year graduation rates yet, of those SPARK students who started in developmental pre-algebra in Fall 2016, 57.1% have graduated, transferred, or are still enrolled at KCC. Of the students in that cohort who started in ENG 91, 63.8% have graduated, transferred, or are still enrolled at KCC. These data compare to 46.6% of all non-SPARK students who started in developmental pre-algebra or ENG 91, and 58.3% of all other freshmen.

SPARK is intended to be a cost-effective approach to developing and expanding upon KCC’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) model for improving graduation rates. The ASAP model was launched in 2007 in all six CUNY community colleges. A recent MDRC study compared ASAP with regular services and classes at the colleges and several key findings demonstrated its impact, particularly for first-generation college students:

  • 8% to 10% increase in semester-to-semester college retention rate
  • 25% increase in credits earned toward a degree
  • 15% increase in associate’s degree completion

These positive effects are among the largest in a community college setting. While the ASAP program yields unparalleled student success, the cost per student prevented scaling of the program.

Based on the success of ASAP, KCC designed SPARK as an effective, lower-cost, more scalable, ASAP-like solution. The SPARK cost per freshman student for the 2016–17 academic year was $1,940 but decreased to $1,052 per freshman student for the 2017–18 academic year.