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Study Shows What Works for Community College Retention

The dismal completion rates at community colleges—less than one-third of all students get a degree within six years—has experts searching for answers to improve student success. Now, new evidence is in from a solid experiment at six sites over eight years testing various models of services and intervention.

Results of Opening Doors to Student Success: A Synthesis of Findings From an Evaluation at Six Community Colleges by Susan Scrivener and Erin Coghlan were released yesterday by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm with offices in New York and California. They include:

The most promising approach: Financial incentives tied to academic performance helped students do better and stay in school. Two programs in New Orleans tested this idea. Low-income parents—mostly African-American single mothers—were offered a scholarship of $1,000 for each of two semesters for a total of $2,000. The money was paid in three installments over a semester if students enrolled at least half time and maintained a 2.0 GPA. The students improved their academic performance into the third and fourth semesters of study even though they were no longer eligible for the scholarship.

Also tested with initial benefits: Learning communities for freshmen. At Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y., groups of 25 students took three classes together during their first semester, including English, a student-success course that covered time-management and study skills, and a standard course such as psychology. Tracking student outcomes for two years, the study showed an initial boost for students and increased their feeling of engagement, but the impact diminished over time, and there wasn't an immediate effect on students' persistence.

An approach with modest impact: Enhanced counseling and student services.
Giving students more intensive and personalized assistance through counseling was tried at Lorian County Community College and Owens Community College in northern Ohio. Counselors worked with 160 targeted, low-income students (rather than the usual caseload of 1,000) and were able to have more frequent contact. The incentive for students: They could get $150 after each time they met with their counselor (for a total of $300). Following their performance for three years, the study found that the counseling program had modest positive benefits, but that impact diminished once the program ended.

An encouraging, but limited intervention: Targeted services to help students move off academic probation.
For struggling students, Chaffey College, east of Los Angeles, developed a program to help them get back on track that included a student- success course in study skills and expectations, visits to the college's supplementary- instruction centers, and meetings with instructors outside class for extra help. The college ran two versions of the program: one that was voluntary; another that as required. While the first approach did not yield any academic improvement, the revised mandatory program increased students' grades and doubled the number that moved off probation. However, it did not increase persistence during the follow-up period.

There's much to learn from the results of these large-scale experiments, especially since there were control groups and random assignments to ensure solid scientific findings. "Opening Doors" suggests the following lessons:


  • Reforms in higher education practices and policies can help students, and even nontraditional ones succeed. All programs had at least some positive change.

  • Short-term enhancements can generate short-term effects, but are not likely to generate long-term gains. Once programs end, the impact tended to fade.

  • Single-focused student service interventions can make a difference but may not be strong enough to substantially change outcomes.

  • Financial incentives can be effective in improving students' behaviors.

  • Requiring students to take part in programs can make a difference in student outcomes.

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