Applying the Evidence in a Higher Education System


MDRC’s Applying the Evidence project is a partnership with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (Minnesota State) to expand the implementation of evidence-based student success strategies across the Minnesota State system, which currently includes 30 community colleges and seven universities.

In partnership with system-level leaders from Minnesota State, MDRC provided an overview of findings from research on various postsecondary education programs and policies and provided technical assistance through in-person and virtual workshops for campus leaders, faculty, and staff.

The project, which ran from May 2019 through June 2021, focused on three strategies:

  • Using multiple measures assessment for accurate course placement;
  • Supporting student belonging with improved policies and communications about Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP); and  
  • Addressing equity gaps in completion through comprehensive student support programs.

All three strategies are critical to the postsecondary student journey and were selected based on the priorities and interests of Minnesota State.

Applying the Evidence is a timely effort. Higher education research has identified several strategies that can improve outcomes for underserved populations, including students from low-income families and historically underrepresented students of color. However, to meaningfully improve student success, postsecondary institutions must implement successful programs with fidelity to the proven models and at scale. In partnering on Applying the Evidence, MDRC provided Minnesota State with not only research information, but also guidance and technical assistance for implementation of evidence-based strategies. Lessons from this project can help other postsecondary systems and individual colleges to implement or scale proven strategies to improve student success.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Applying the Evidence seeks to disseminate evidence on student success strategies that can improve postsecondary student outcomes and to provide technical assistance to advance implementation and scaling of those strategies.

The project focused on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (Minnesota State), which encompasses 30 colleges and seven universities. In partnership with Minnesota State, MDRC disseminated research evidence and provided technical assistance on three key strategies:

  • Using Multiple Measures Assessment for Accurate Course Placement. Colleges and universities have a long history of relying on a single placement exam to place students in college-level or developmental education courses, but recent evidence suggests that using alternative measures, such as high school GPA, is a more accurate way to place students. Drawing on research about placement, including the Multiple Measures Assessment Project, which included several Minnesota State colleges, one strand of Applying the Evidence focused on disseminating findings and lessons to help Minnesota State implement a single multiple measures placement model across the system.
  • Supporting Student Belonging with Improved Communications and Policies About Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). Maintaining Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) is crucial to the success of low-income students, as students must meet their colleges’ SAP requirements to remain eligible for federal financial aid. Drawing on research about SAP, including the Finish Line: Graduation by Design project that took place in Minnesota, the second strand of Applying the Evidence focused on improving the design of SAP communications and practices. Findings from the Finish Line project and other research on SAP were disseminated across the system. MDRC also partnered with the College Transition Collaborative and a campus in the system to help campuses redesign their SAP warning and suspension notices to students, making them more “psychologically attuned” to students and action-oriented. 
  • Addressing Equity Gaps in Completion Through Comprehensive Student Support Programs. Comprehensive student support programs that combine academic, personal, and financial support into a single program are one of the most effective strategies for increasing persistence and degree completion among students from families with low incomes and traditionally underrepresented students of color, according to research. To help advance Minnesota State’s goal to close equity gaps in completion, the final component of Applying the Evidence focused on disseminating evidence on the efficacy of comprehensive student support programs and launching a comprehensive student support program for Minnesota State, using the Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success (SUCCESS) program model.

The project launched in May 2019 and ran through the end of June 2021.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Applying the Evidence included a set of technical assistance workshops focused on three student success strategies: multiple measures assessment, satisfactory academic progress communications and policies, and comprehensive student support programs.

The project was open to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which includes 30 community colleges and seven universities.