A postsecondary credential has become increasingly important in the labor market, and college attendance has grown. Unfortunately, college completion remains less common, particularly in community colleges, which serve many low-income and academically underprepared students who often need remedial (developmental) courses. Finding ways to increase the rates of persistence in school and of credential attainment among community college students is critical to improving their long-term economic prospects while meeting the needs of employers for skilled workers.
Previous research on student persistence had highlighted the importance of student “engagement” in a college’s academic and social life — particularly during a student’s first year. “Learning communities,” which emerged in the 1970s, were viewed by many practitioners and researchers as a promising strategy to promote student engagement and retention. Learning communities bring together small groups of students who take two or more linked courses that have mutually reinforcing themes and assignments. Learning communities seek to encourage peer relationships, intensify personal connections to faculty, and foster a deeper mastery of course work.
Studies of learning communities had found that students and faculty had positive views of their experiences. Moreover, results from a learning communities evaluation at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY — part of MDRC’s Opening Doors demonstration — had shown that relative to a control group of students in regular classes, students in learning communities moved more quickly through developmental English requirements, took and passed more courses, and earned more credits in their first semester. Two years later, they were also somewhat more likely to be enrolled in college, and six years later they were more likely to graduate.
As part of six-year grant from the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education to the National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR), MDRC and other NCPR research partners conducted a multi-college demonstration of learning communities. The demonstration built on the experiences of Kingsborough Community College by testing variations of learning communities that had different focus courses (including developmental math and developmental English).