Promoting Partnerships for Student Success

Lessons from the SSPIRE Initiative

| Evan Weissman, Oscar Cerna, Christian Geckeler, Emily Schneider, Derek V. Price, Thomas J. Smith

California’s 110 community colleges are an essential part of the state’s higher education and workforce development structure, serving over 2.6 million students annually. But a growing number of students face major obstacles to success, including inadequate preparation for college-level courses, and many end up dropping out. New scholarship suggests that student support services, such as academic and personal advising, counseling, tutoring, and financial aid, are critically important for promoting better academic outcomes for students. The challenge is to integrate these support services with academic instruction. Unfortunately, the very way most community colleges are organized — with student services housed in one division and academic functions in another, each functioning in parallel but with little coordination — creates obstacles to successful integration. These obstacles are often exacerbated by competition between the divisions for limited budget resources.

To help overcome this divide, the Student Support Partnership Integrating Resources and Education (SSPIRE) initiative was funded by the James Irvine Foundation and coordinated by MDRC. SSPIRE aimed to increase the success of young, low-income, and academically underprepared California community college students by helping community colleges strengthen their support services and better integrate these services with academic instruction. Nine California community colleges were selected to participate in SSPIRE, and each received as much as $250,000 in total from 2006 through early 2009. There was no uniform SSPIRE program; rather, each college proposed its own approach to integrate student services and instruction, based on campus needs and objectives. The grant funds enabled each college to support strategies that served approximately 100 to 1,000 students per year and to simultaneously identify and expand promising practices and look for ways to sustain their programs with existing college revenues.

This report describes how the SSPIRE colleges implemented four basic approaches to integrating student services with instruction: learning communities, a “drop-in” study center, a summer math program, and case management programs. Each college supplemented the SSPIRE funding with its own contributions, and all the colleges reached disadvantaged students on their campuses, an important goal of the initiative. The report also presents some of the colleges’ own data, which suggest that SSPIRE services may have led to modest improvements in students’ course pass rates and persistence in college.

Finally, this report offers cross-cutting lessons drawn from MDRC’s research on the initiative. These lessons present practitioners and policymakers across the state and nation with examples from well-implemented programs that integrated student services with academic instruction. Though the changes the SSPIRE colleges made were mostly incremental, the initiative resulted in new programs and practices on each of the campuses. Other institutions of higher education seeking to integrate student services with academic instruction may look to these examples to see that this integration is possible, if not always easy, to achieve. Most important, this report offers hope that more students at these California colleges and elsewhere will receive the information, guidance, and support they need to persist in college and reach their academic goals.