Despite the increasing importance of a postsecondary credential in today’s labor market, degree completion rates for community college students have stagnated. Two out of every three students who enroll in community college fail to earn a degree or certificate within six years, an outcome with serious consequences for their individual economic well-being as well as the strength of our national economy. While many community colleges have implemented targeted interventions to bolster student success, these effects have not changed the colleges’ overall completion rates and the programs disappear soon after the initiatives end. To sustainably and significantly increase completion rates for all community college students under the age of 26, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched Completion by Design, an initiative that, over a five-year period, asked participating community colleges to rethink and systemically change all aspects of a student’s experience from entry to exit to creating a new and accepted “way of doing business.”
MDRC’s study, which ended in 2015, focused on understanding how individual community colleges implemented this ambitious multifaceted and deep change, while simultaneously ensuring the college’s culture shifts to embrace this new way of doing business so that the reforms last. The first two post-planning years showed that despite strong commitments to change, systemically changing a community college is a harder, slower process than expected. Change leaders had to balance the goal of rapidly expanding many reforms broadly with resource constraints, the desire to pilot and refine new procedures, and the need to promote faculty and staff buy-in. Acceptance was facilitated by distributing leadership, involving staff in shaping the reforms, and showing concretely how reforms help students, but these activities slowed the change process. Only time will tell what balance between attending to faculty and staff acceptance versus diffusing the reforms broadly best leads to lasting change.