Texas Developmental Summer Bridge Study


Developmental Education Initiative


The Getting Ready for Success Pilot Program




A Good Start

Two-Year Effects of a Freshmen Learning Community Program at Kingsborough Community College

Over the past few decades, a postsecondary credential has become increasingly important in the labor market, and college attendance has become more common. Unfortunately, however, many students leave college before receiving a degree, particularly those who are academically underprepared for college-level work. Many postsecondary institutions operate learning communities to promote students’ involvement and persistence in college. Learning communities typically place groups of students in two or more linked courses with mutually reinforcing themes and assignments. They seek to build peer relationships, intensify connections to faculty, and deepen understanding of coursework. While learning communities are increasingly popular, little rigorous evidence on their effects exists.

As part of MDRC’s multisite Opening Doors demonstration, Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York — a large, urban college with a diverse student population that includes many immigrants — operated one such learning community program. The program placed freshmen in groups of up to 25 who took three classes together during their first semester: an English class, usually at the developmental level; an academic course, such as health or psychology; and a one-credit orientation course. The program provided enhanced counseling and tutoring as well as a voucher for textbooks.

Using a rigorous research design, MDRC assigned 1,534 freshmen, at random, either to a program group that was eligible for the learning community or to a control group that received the college’s standard courses and services. Analyses in this report show that:

  • The program improved students’ college experience. Students in the program group felt more integrated and more engaged than students in the control group.
  • The program also improved some educational outcomes while students were in the learning community program, but the effects diminished in subsequent semesters. Program group students, for example, attempted and passed more courses and earned more credits during their first semester.
  • The program moved students more quickly through developmental English requirements. Students in the program group were more likely to take and pass English skills assessment tests that are required for graduation or transfer.
  • The evidence is mixed about whether the program increased persistence. Initially the program did not change the rate at which students reenrolled. In the last semester of the report’s two-year follow-up period, however, slightly more program group members than control group members attended college.

These results are not the final word on Kingsborough’s program: MDRC plans to continue tracking sample members’ outcomes for at least another year.




A Whole ’Nother World

Students Navigating Community College

Each year thousands of young people begin their college careers in community colleges. The lower cost, more convenient location, and flexible admissions standards of community colleges make them an attractive educational alternative for many students, especially those from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet, persistence toward degrees among community college students is low. Family responsibilities, poor academic performance, and weak ties to faculty and other students get in the way of students’ educational aspirations.

MDRC’s Opening Doors Demonstration is measuring the effects of various combinations of curricular reforms, enhanced academic advising, and increased financial aid intended to increase the persistence and improve the academic achievement of students at six community colleges across the United States. To determine the impact of the Opening Doors interventions, the study uses a random assignment design. Students are assigned either to a program group that participates in special classes or receives Opening Doors services or to a comparison group that benefits only from the regular classes and services the college offers to all students.

This qualitative study, a complement to the Opening Doors impact evaluation, asked students about the factors that affect their ability to persist in community college. Interviews with a small sample of 47 students from both program and comparison groups, most between the ages of 18 and 25, were conducted at two Opening Doors campuses, Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, and Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York. The program at Lorain provided enhanced advising services, while the program at Kingsborough used small learning communities to assist participating students. In the winter of 2005, students discussed their preparation for college, academic performance, family and work responsibilities, and connections to faculty, staff, and other students. The key findings are:

  • Many younger students (20 and under) reported they attended college largely to please their parents and did not feel a strong personal motivation. In contrast, many students between 21 and 25 said they enrolled to escape low-wage work and ultimately provide a higher standard of living for their families.
  • Parenting responsibilities of students with children often interfered with their ability to study and attend class using a traditional schedule.
  • Making friends in college was only marginally important to interviewed students.
  • At Lorain, the individualized academic advising the program group students received helped them avoid some pitfalls experienced by comparison group students, such as overloading their course schedules.
  • At Kingsborough, program group students, who participated in classes with coordinated curricula, reported higher levels of personal attention on assignments from instructors than did comparison group students in traditional classes.



Breaking New Ground

An Impact Study of Career-Focused Learning Communities at Kingsborough Community College

The low completion rates of students in community colleges have been well documented. Among students who enroll in community colleges hoping to earn a credential or transfer to a four-year institution, only about half achieve this goal within six years. Many factors contribute to these low success rates, including lack of financial support, lack of motivation and direction, competing demands from family and jobs, and inadequate college-readiness skills. In an effort to address some of those barriers and to increase the number of students who achieve their education and career goals, community colleges are turning increasingly to learning communities — in which cohorts of students are coenrolled in two or sometimes three courses that are linked by a common theme and are taught by a team of instructors who collaborate with each other around the syllabi and assignments.

Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, is a leader in the learning community movement. The college, which has run learning communities for many years and has a long history of implementing innovative programs for its students, is one of six colleges participating in the National Center for Postsecondary Research’s Learning Communities Demonstration, in which random assignment evaluations are being used to determine the impacts of learning communities on students’ academic achievement. This report presents findings from an evaluation of Kingsborough’s unique Career-Focused Learning Communities program, the latest iteration in a series of learning community models designed and implemented by the college. It consisted of two courses required for a specific major and a third course called the "integrative seminar" that was designed to reinforce the learning in the two other courses and to expose students to information about careers in their selected major. The key findings presented in this report are:

  • Kingsborough’s learning communities program model was sophisticated and ambitious relative to the typical model in its offer of three rather than two linked courses and its focus on integrated curricula.
  • Start-up problems during implementation kept the program from achieving a "steady state" during the demonstration.
  • For the sample as a whole, the program did not have meaningful impacts on the educational outcomes that were measured during the semesters in which students enrolled in a learning community or on outcomes measured in the following semester.
  • For students who had recently transferred from another college, the program had a modest but positive impact on credits earned during the semester in which the program ran.

Findings from the Learning Communities Demonstration reports that have been released to date generally show that learning community impacts, when they occur, tend to be modest and concentrated in the semester in which the learning communities are run. However, a fuller understanding will be gained as findings are released from the remaining two colleges in the demonstration. In addition, a final report, including further follow-up findings, will be released in 2012.



Building a Culture of Evidence for Community College Student Success

Early Progress in the Achieving the Dream Initiative

In 2003, Lumina Foundation for Education launched a bold, multiyear, national initiative called Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, to help students stay in school and succeed. The initiative is focused particularly on students who have faced the most barriers to success, including low-income students and students of color. Initially, 27 community colleges in five states joined the initiative; there are now 82 institutions in 15 states.

Participating colleges commit to collecting and analyzing data to improve student outcomes — a process known as “building a culture of evidence.” Specifically, colleges mine transcripts and gather other information to understand how students are faring over time and which groups need the most assistance. From this work, colleges implement strategies to improve academic outcomes. Colleges evaluate their strategies, expand effective ones, and use data to guide budgeting and other institutional decisions. Participating colleges receive a $50,000 planning grant followed by a four-year, $400,000 implementation grant, along with assistance from expert advisers hired by the initiative. This report describes the progress that the first 27 colleges have made after planning and one year of implementation. The key findings are:

  • As expected, institutional measures reveal low rates of success at baseline. Before the initiative was launched, colleges reported that, on average, only about 30 percent of students who were referred to introductory college English completed the course within three years. For introductory math, the rate was about 20 percent.
  • The colleges embraced the goal of building a culture of evidence. The presidents at the colleges generally showed strong leadership, and every college created at least a small team to plan and implement Achieving the Dream.
  • About half the colleges used data analysis to identify problems to address on their campuses. Colleges were not always sure about how to respond to what they had learned from the data, however. Some colleges struggled because their research offices were understaffed or their computer systems were weak.
  • Colleges implemented a wide array of strategies to improve student success, including strengthening academic advising and orientation programs, revamping developmental education, and offering professional development for faculty and staff.
  • Six colleges showed signs of institutionalizing a culture of evidence after only one year. Most other colleges showed signs of progress.

The evaluation team will return to the colleges over the next few years to determine what further progress they — and their students — have made. A final report is planned for 2010.




Building Learning Communities

Early Results from the Opening Doors Demonstration at Kingsborough Community College

A postsecondary credential is becoming a prerequisite for admission to the American middle class. Community colleges, with their open admissions, convenient locations, and relatively modest cost, serve as the gateway to postsecondary education for many low-income and disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, many students enter community college with low basic skills and leave before earning a credential. 

In the Opening Doors project, MDRC and its research partners are working with six community colleges to test special programs designed to increase student persistence and achievement and, in the longer term, labor market success. Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York — a fairly large college with a diverse student population that includes many immigrants — is testing a program called Opening Doors Learning Communities. The program has served about 750 students. It targets freshmen, most of whom failed one or more of the reading, writing, and math skills tests that all incoming students must take. 

Kingsborough’s Opening Doors Learning Communities program places participating freshmen into groups that consist of up to 25 students each. Each group forms a learning community, a cohort that takes three first-semester courses together: English (usually at the remedial level), a course on another academic subject, and a one-credit freshman-orientation course. The instructors, including a counselor who teaches the freshman orientation course, work as a team to integrate the courses (for example, by giving joint assignments), meeting regularly during the semester to review student progress and to devise success strategies for students having problems. Each learning community’s counselor works with students to address any obstacles to regular attendance and academic success. Students in the learning communities also receive extra tutoring and a voucher to purchase books. 

Kingsborough freshmen who agree to participate in the Opening Doors study are assigned, through a lottery-like process, to the learning communities program or to a control group that takes regular unlinked courses and is eligible for standard counseling and tutoring. Opening Doors is the first evaluation of a community college program to use this rigorous research design. Analysis of transcripts for the first group of students to enter the study in fall 2003 show that: 

  • Opening Doors students substantially outperformed control group students during their first semester at Kingsborough, achieving higher course pass rates, particularly in English. 
  • One year after enrollment, Opening Doors students were more likely to have completed their remedial English requirements. Among students who had failed both the reading and writing skills tests prior to enrollment, 33 percent of Opening Doors students had retaken and passed both tests one year later, compared to just 14 percent of control group students. Surprisingly, however, Opening Doors students were no more likely than control group students to be enrolled at Kingsborough (or elsewhere in the City University of New York) one year later. 

These early results are not the final word on the Kingsborough program. They include only about one-fourth of the students in the study and primarily reflect the experiences of students who participated in the learning communities program during its start-up semester. Future reports will include results for a larger group of students over a longer follow-up period.



Building Student Success From the Ground Up

A Case Study of an Achieving the Dream College

In 2003, Lumina Foundation for Education launched a bold, national initiative aimed at improving community college students’ success — that is, helping students remain in school, improve their performance, and ultimately graduate with certificates or degrees — particularly among low-income students and students of color. Now encompassing 102 institutions in 22 states, Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count supports colleges through an institution-wide improvement process focused on the use of evidence to inform decisions about programming and practice. The goal for colleges is to develop a "culture of evidence" in which a broad spectrum of faculty, staff, and administrators review data on student outcomes to identify priority areas for reform, develop strategies for improvement, implement and evaluate those strategies, and institutionalize those that yield evidence of increasing student success. The initiative provides both funding and expert consultation to help colleges through this process.

Guilford Technical Community College, in Jamestown, North Carolina, joined the first cohort of colleges to participate in Achieving the Dream in 2004. In line with the objectives of the initiative, Guilford has made great strides over the past five years in becoming a data-driven, success-oriented institution. Its numerous strategic interventions were developed to address identified priorities for student success, especially for developmental education students and first-year students. Furthermore, these strategies have been systematically evaluated and improved based on evidence of student achievement. This case study draws from Guilford’s experience implementing Achieving the Dream to highlight what colleges may achieve and the challenges they may face in undertaking a similar process of institutional reform.

Key Findings

  • Building a culture of evidence: Guilford overcame initial setbacks with data collection and analysis by investing in its institutional research (IR) capacity, including both technological systems and staff expertise. Its IR department now informs decision making with systematic program evaluations and disseminates knowledge about data analysis across the college.
  • Developing strategies and engaging stakeholders: Guilford’s strategic interventions reinforce its identified priorities for student success and are augmented by professional development opportunities for faculty and staff. Several of these strategies have been sustained and expanded based on promising trends in persistence and course completion.
  • Institutionalizing Achieving the Dream: High-level commitment from Guilford’s leadership has helped the college to embed its student success agenda into institutional decision-making processes. Strategic planning is now informed by the college’s "scorecard," which establishes goals for institutional performance and monitors progress against these benchmarks. Guilford has observed promising increases along some of the performance indicators in its scorecard, including increased persistence and graduation rates.

Each chapter in the report concludes with lessons, both for colleges and for the Achieving the Dream initiative, about how to build a culture of evidence to increase students’ rate of success.


Working Paper

Case Studies of Three Community Colleges

The Policy and Practice of Assessing and Placing Students in Developmental Education Courses

Among educators and policymakers, there is a burgeoning awareness that vast numbers of community college students around the country are unprepared for college-level work and hence referred to developmental education courses. To increase public discussion about developmental education, the Ford Foundation has expressed particular interest in better understanding how community colleges assess students for placement in remedial or college-level courses. MDRC conducted case studies at three community colleges to learn about each college’s placement policies and practices. Our case studies illustrate the routine policies and practices at each of the three colleges and highlight several issues and challenges, including a lack of consensus about the standard for college-level work, the high-stakes nature of the assessments, and the minimal relationship between assessment for placement and diagnosis for instruction.

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