Project GRAD


Dreamkeepers and Angel Fund Emergency Financial Aid


Texas Developmental Summer Bridge Study


The Getting Ready for Success Pilot Program




Building the Foundation for Improved Student Performance

The Pre-Curricular Phase of Project GRAD Newark

Conceived and first implemented in Houston, Texas, Project GRAD is a relatively new education initiative, but one that has already generated strong interest and been expanded to five other cities: Atlanta, Columbus, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Newark. This first report from MDRC’s ongoing evaluation of Project GRAD Newark, the initial expansion site, is focused on early implementation of the initiative — its pre-curricular phase. The evaluation affords a view of Project GRAD’s components, principles, and implementation period as they are being adapted to a new context and offers policymakers important insight into the process of introducing a major education reform into a school system. The findings from the evaluation thus far suggest that the implementation of Project GRAD in Newark is off to a strong start, and there are promising signs of progress. Upcoming reports on Project GRAD Newark will focus on the initiative’s curricular components and their effects on student achievement outcomes.



Changing Courses

Instructional Innovations That Help Low-Income Students Succeed in Community College

In recent years, interest has grown in the role of community colleges in helping low-skill and low-income individuals advance out of poverty and toward self-sufficiency. In part, this interest is a reaction to the shortcomings of traditional workforce and adult education programs. It also reflects the impressive efforts of innovative community colleges to focus resources and leadership attention on strategies to improve postsecondary attainment, persistence, and program completion for lower-income working adults.

MDRC’s Opening Doors to Earning Credentials project and its early reports echoed the conclusions of Norton Grubb, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and others regarding the potential of community colleges — that community colleges are the local educational institutions with the greatest potential for helping low-wage workers earn skills and credentials that lead to both educational and career advancement. At the same time, Opening Doors identified serious obstacles to realizing that potential, including the characteristics of the low-wage workforce, the institutional structure and priorities of most community colleges, and the external policy environment in which they operate.

MDRC has identified three strategies that might enable colleges to be more effective in helping working adults obtain college credentials. These are: (1) financial incentives that can address the high cost of college for low-income individuals; (2) student supports that can help working adults cope with academic, personal, and other problems that often result in their dropping or stopping out; and (3) program and curricular innovations and redesign that can cope with the severe time constraints, skill needs, and job advancement hopes of working adults.

MDRC asked Jobs for the Future to look at curricular and program redesign strategies being used in community colleges today to speed advancement from lower levels of skill into credential programs and to shorten the time commitment that earning a credential demands of students. This paper presents a framework for understanding the range of experimentation with program and class reformatting and redesign. It identifies programs that exemplify promising approaches. The paper concludes with issues and questions that MDRC will need to address in assessing whether to proceed with a research program focused on program redesign efforts geared to working adults’ needs.



Charting a Path to Graduation

The Effect of Project GRAD on Elementary School
Student Outcomes in Four Urban Districts

Project Graduation Really Achieves Dreams (GRAD) is an ambitious education reform initiative designed to improve academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and rates of college attendance for low-income students. It is an unusual reform model in that it intervenes throughout an entire “feeder pattern” of elementary and middle schools that send students into each Project GRAD high school. This report presents results of MDRC’s multiyear evaluation of the effects of Project GRAD on student achievement at elementary schools in six feeder patterns, encompassing a total of 52 schools in four cities: Houston, Texas (the original site); Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; and Newark, New Jersey. A companion report examines Project GRAD’s effects at the high school level in three urban school districts.

In elementary schools, Project GRAD implements reading and math curricula, with enhanced professional development for teachers. In addition, each elementary school builds support in the community for school improvement and college attendance, implements a classroom management program, provides students with access to needed social services, and receives special support from local Project GRAD organizations. At the high school level, Project GRAD’s model assumes that better-prepared students would come from the feeder schools, would benefit from special academic counseling and summer academic enrichment in high school, and would qualify for a scholarship to attend college, which is the “cornerstone” of the Project GRAD reform.

The key findings of this report are:

  • Scores on state achievement tests at Project GRAD elementary schools in Houston and Atlanta improved in the years following implementation of the initiative. However, in an environment of strong state and local focus on state achievement tests, scores improved by similar amounts at comparison schools in these same districts.
  • Project GRAD produced statistically significant positive effects on elementary students’ scores on national achievement tests in Houston and Newark; that is, while comparison schools experienced a decline in scores on these tests, Project GRAD schools saw scores remain constant or increase.
  • In Columbus, the implementation of Project GRAD was initially weaker than in the other sites, and this appears to have lowered test scores — both absolutely and relative to comparison schools — in the early years of the initiative.



Does More Money Matter?

An Introduction to the Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration in California

California’s higher education system is the largest in the nation, serving 2.6 million students each year, or roughly 25 percent of all undergraduates nationwide. While a model in many ways, the system has suffered from a number of stressors, with large enrollment increases over the last 15 years and fewer resources available to help greater numbers of students. To compound matters, federal support for students has also come under intense pressure, after several years of increased support for Pell Grants — the federal assistance program for low-income college students. This "perfect storm" heightens the importance of available resources for student support such as scholarships. The expense of attending college is one of many factors that may explain why low-income students often drop out of school. Yet little is known about whether financial aid works to increase academic success, and if it does work, how much aid is necessary and whether various conditions for disbursing the aid matter.

Performance-based scholarships — need-based grants that are contingent on meeting certain academic benchmarks — represent an innovative type of financial assistance that is intended to supplement existing financial aid and give students an incentive to stay in school and make good progress toward a postsecondary degree. In California — where, despite generous state aid and relatively low fees at community colleges, many low-income students still have substantial costs associated with attending college that they cannot cover — performance-based scholarships may also help to fill some unmet need.

In 2008, MDRC launched the national Performance-Based Scholarship (PBS) Demonstration, seeking to evaluate whether performance-based scholarships are effective at improving retention among low-income students — that is, helping them persist in their studies — in different geographical locations with different amounts of monies over different durations. Performance-based scholarships are paid to students in addition to federal and state aid to further assist them with meeting the costs associated with attending college. These scholarships incorporate three key principles:

  1. They are predicated on students meeting basic conditions regarding enrollment and grades in college courses, unlike merit aid, which tends to be tied to high school performance.
  2. They are paid directly to students rather than to institutions, in order for students to "feel" the incentive and use the money in any way that will help them succeed academically (for example, to pay for books, supplies, reducing hours at a job, and so forth).
  3. They supplement federal Pell Grants and state aid to help meet the needs of low-income students.

This brief provides an overview of the program that was implemented in California — one of six such programs in the PBS Demonstration. All six programs are being evaluated using a random assignment experimental design, in which students are randomly assigned either to a program group that receives a scholarship or to a control group that does not receive a scholarship. In the California case, the random assignment process assigned sample members to one of six possible scholarship types, five of which are performance-based and one that has no performance incentive attached to it, or to a control group that did not receive a scholarship from the program. All groups continued to receive other financial aid and scholarships for which they qualified.



Emergency Financial Aid for Community College Students

Implementation and Early Lessons from the Dreamkeepers and Angel Fund Programs

Lumina Foundation for Education created the Dreamkeepers Emergency Financial Aid Program and the Angel Fund Program to provide emergency financial assistance to community college students who are at risk of dropping out. Both programs are three-year pilot projects administered, respectively, by Scholarship America and the American Indian College Fund. Eleven community colleges are participating in Dreamkeepers; 26 Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) are participating in Angel Fund. Each Dreamkeepers college receives $100,000 over three years; each TCU receives $10,000 over five years. The colleges are responsible for designing the programs and raising matching funds to sustain them.

MDRC will evaluate the programs over three years. This report describes early findings from interviews conducted with administrators and students (Dreamkeepers), an online survey and administrator reports (Angel Fund), and information on student aid recipients submitted by the colleges. Among the key findings:

  • The Dreamkeepers colleges have disbursed awards ranging from $12 to $2,286 to over 600 students; the average award was $293. Seventeen Angel Fund colleges have disbursed nearly 400 awards ranging from $20 to $1,500; the average award was $220.
  • For both programs, housing and transportation problems were the top reasons for students requesting aid. Students generally felt the aid helped them remain in college. Some said that the decision-making process was not transparent, and that it took too long to receive aid.
  • Eight Dreamkeepers colleges give grants; three offer loans. Aid approval processes range from casual to formal, and from immediate approval to a wait of weeks. Many programs are not advertised widely for fear that they will be overwhelmed by requests. Students usually learn about the aid from financial aid staff, but sometimes from faculty or fellow students.
  • At some Dreamkeepers colleges, there were large differences between the gender or ethnic and racial composition of the student body and that of the students who received aid. Male and Hispanic students, for example, were less likely to receive emergency assistance.
  • Colleges in both programs faced some common implementation challenges: defining what constitutes an emergency, determining how best to publicize the program, and building an efficient structure for reviewing and approving applications for aid. Some institutions, particularly the tribal colleges, needed assistance with fundraising strategies, and many colleges would benefit from enhanced programmatic support from Scholarship America or the American Indian College Fund.

MDRC will continue to evaluate the two programs through 2007. A final report will describe both programs’ evolution and the academic outcomes of Dreamkeepers aid recipients.



Enhancing Student Services at Owens Community College

Early Results from the Opening Doors Demonstration in Ohio

Community colleges offer an important pathway to better jobs and higher earnings, especially for individuals who might otherwise lack the financial or academic preparation to pursue higher education. Research suggests, however, that many community college students want to earn a degree, but are hindered by the competing demands of work and family and by institutional barriers, such as inadequate student support services and insufficient financial aid. MDRC and a consortium of funders launched the Opening Doors demonstration in 2003 to study the effects of community college programs designed to help students persist in school and earn a credential.

This report presents early results from the Opening Doors program at Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio, which operated from 2004 through 2006. The program served students whose family income was below 250 percent of the federal poverty level and who were either incoming freshmen or returning students who had completed fewer than 13 credits and had a history of academic difficulties. The two-semester program provided enhanced student services and a $150 scholarship each semester (for a total of $300), which was paid after required advising sessions. Students were assigned to an academic adviser, with whom they were expected to meet frequently to discuss their academic progress and issues that might affect their schooling. Each adviser worked with no more than 185 students. Program participants also sometimes met with a designated contact in the financial aid office and received free one-on-one tutoring in the college’s Learning Center. In contrast, other students at Owens had access to academic advisers, as needed, at a walk-in center, which employed one staff member for roughly every 1,000 students. Students could visit the college’s Learning Center, where they typically received tutoring assistance in a group. If they needed more individualized help, they could receive one-on-one tutoring for a nominal fee.

MDRC is evaluating Owens’ program using a random assignment research design. Students were assigned in a lottery-like process either to a program group that received Opening Doors services or to a control group that received the college’s regular services. Analysis of transcript data shows:

  • Owens’ Opening Doors program increased registration rates while students received services. Students in the program group were more likely than students in the control group to reenroll in college after one semester, and they registered for more credits. However, they were more likely to withdraw from at least one course, so they did not earn any more credits than students in the control group.
  • The increase in enrollment ended when the program’s services ended. In the semester after the program ended, enrollment and course registration rates for the two research groups were similar.
  • The positive effects on enrollment during the program gave Opening Doors students a slight advantage overall. Results summarizing outcomes for students’ first three semesters in the study show a very small increase in the number of semesters enrolled for the program group (they enrolled, on average, for an additional one-tenth of a semester).

The early results from Owens show that the program boosted enrollment in the short run but did not have a significant lasting effect. Future reports will track academic outcomes over a longer follow-up period to determine whether the early effects on enrollment reemerge, and will present results on a wider array of measures, including degree completion, transfer, employment, and well-being.

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