Learning Communities Demonstration


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).

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The project evaluated the effectiveness of learning communities as a strategy to improve selected educational outcomes for academically underprepared students, such as completion of developmental education requirements and persistence in college.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The demonstration used a random assignment research design to compare the experiences and outcomes of students in the learning communities with those of students not participating in the programs. MDRC and its partners collected data from a variety of sources, including students’ academic records, to determine the effects of the programs. Six community colleges participated in the demonstration:

  • The Community College of Baltimore County (Baltimore, Maryland)

  • Hillsborough Community College (Tampa, Florida)

  • Houston Community College (Houston, Texas)

  • Kingsborough Community College (Brooklyn, New York)

  • Merced College (Merced, California)

  • Queensborough Community College (Queens, New York)

Study intake began in fall 2007 and was completed by the end of 2009. During this time, more than 6,000 students participated in the demonstration across the six colleges. An implementation study was conducted to document how the learning communities programs were designed and operated, and to describe the classroom experience from the perspective of teachers and students in the learning communities and regular college programs. Findings from the demonstration are published in a series of reports, culminating in The Effects of Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Education in 2012.