On the Path to a Degree (OnPath)


MDRC’s On the Path to a Degree project (OnPath) seeks to improve student persistence and success at community colleges through evidence-based messaging strategies. Through OnPath, MDRC will collaborate with five community colleges in New Jersey and five two-year Historically Black Colleges and Universities to design and develop student outreach campaigns that simplify registration information, connect students to available financial aid, and encourage continual enrollment.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges are managing multiple priorities, including figuring out how to keep students engaged while conveying new policies and procedures. Many students are reconsidering whether they will continue to enroll full time or enroll at all in college due to financial, health, and other concerns. Students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, need simple, actionable information about financial aid and other resources to continue their education—during the pandemic and beyond.

OnPath aims to help students and colleges by supporting colleges with student engagement and outreach. Drawing on prior research, MDRC will conduct behavioral science and message design workshops for college teams and provide technical assistance to help colleges design and implement student messaging campaigns. Messages will address current barriers to student persistence, highlight available financial aid, and encourage students to stay on the path to a degree.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

OnPath has two main goals: (1) to develop student outreach campaigns to encourage continual student enrollment and persistence, especially among low-income students and (2) to train college personnel on behavioral science principles and message design strategies demonstrated to be effective by rigorous research.

During the first phase of the project, colleges will work with MDRC to conduct a diagnosis and needs assessment to understand barriers to student persistence and examine existing communication practices at the colleges. These findings will directly inform the communication strategy, including the content and delivery modes, and provide insights for college leadership.

Following diagnosis and needs assessment, college teams will participate in technical assistance workshops, hosted by MDRC, to learn about principles of behavioral science and student-centered communication and to start drafting messages for the outreach campaigns. 

The student outreach campaigns will be launched during the enrollment period for fall 2021, and MDRC will work with each college over several semesters to continue refining and improving the campaigns.

Finally, MDRC will work with participating colleges to share resources, templates, and best practices with their peer institutions and the larger higher education community.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

OnPath will include qualitative and descriptive research to inform the design of student communications and technical assistance to facilitate implementation of the campaign. The project currently includes two groups of colleges: New Jersey community colleges and two-year colleges designated as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

In New Jersey, five colleges are serving as lead colleges for the state. These colleges will collaborate with MDRC and the New Jersey Council of County Colleges to develop student communication templates, which will later be expanded to other colleges in New Jersey. These colleges include:

  • Camden County College
  • Hudson County Community College
  • Mercer County Community College
  • Rowan College at Burlington County
  • Union County College

Five two-year HBCUs will participate in OnPath. These colleges will collaborate with MDRC to develop institution-specific messaging campaigns. The campaigns will be shared with other two-year HBCUs and community colleges.