Getting Back on Track

Effects of a Community College Program for Probationary Students

| Susan Scrivener, Colleen Sommo, Herbert Collado

Community colleges are often hailed as open-access institutions, and, arguably, no state has done more to ensure access than California. Unfortunately, community college completion rates are dismally low, in part because many students are underprepared for college-level work. In fact, tens of thousands of students in California are on probation, owing to poor grades or inadequate academic progress, or both, and face a high risk of not graduating. To date, little research has been done on how to help such students get back into good standing.

As part of MDRC’s multisite Opening Doors demonstration, Chaffey College, a large community college in Southern California, ran two versions of a program that was designed to improve outcomes among students who are on probation. Both versions offered a “College Success” course, taught by a college counselor, which provided basic information on study skills and the requirements of college. As part of the course, students were expected to visit the college’s “Success Centers” — which were established at Chaffey in response to the school’s recognition that many of its entering students were not prepared for college-level work, and where students could receive supplementary individualized or group instruction in math, reading, and writing. The original program, called “Opening Doors,” was a one-semester, voluntary program. The other version, called “Enhanced Opening Doors” in this report, was a two-semester program, in which students were told that they were required to take the College Success course.

MDRC collaborated with the college to evaluate Opening Doors and Enhanced Opening Doors. In 2005, students were randomly assigned either to a program group that was eligible for Opening Doors or to a control group that received standard college courses and services. Any subsequent substantial differences between the program and control groups’ academic outcomes can be attributed to Opening Doors. In 2006, a second group of students was randomly assigned to estimate the impacts of Enhanced Opening Doors. This report describes the findings for both programs, which include the following:

  • Chaffey’s original, voluntary Opening Doors program did not meaningfully affect students’ academic outcomes. Program group students were no more likely to get off probation than were control group students.
  • In contrast, the Enhanced Opening Doors program, with its message of required participation, improved students’ academic outcomes. It increased the average number of credits earned, the proportion of students who earned a grade point average of 2.0 or higher, and the proportion who moved off probation.
  • Analyses suggest that the greater success of Enhanced Opening Doors might have been driven by the higher rate of participation in the College Success course. Only about half the original Opening Doors program group took the College Success course, compared with approximately three-fourths of the Enhanced Opening Doors program group.

Following the study, Chaffey committed to institutionalizing a revised version of Enhanced Opening Doors to more fully implement and enforce the college’s probation and dismissal policies, and built upon its experiences in the Opening Doors demonstration to develop a voluntary program, called “Smart Start,” for new students who are at risk of experiencing difficulties.