Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success (SUCCESS)


MDRC’s Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success (SUCCESS) seeks to improve graduation rates for traditionally underserved students at two- and four-year colleges, by helping states and institutions align their resources with evidence-driven practices. SUCCESS combines components from multiple programs that have proven themselves to be effective at helping students succeed in college. It seeks to create financially sustainable programs that will dramatically improve graduation rates at scale.

SUCCESS programs are built around elements derived from more than 15 years of postsecondary research conducted by MDRC and others. These program components include: frequent proactive advisingfinancial incentives tied to service usage; strategies focused on increasing academic momentum (like requiring full-time enrollment or encouraging summer/winter enrollment); and the use of real-time data to support student progress.

Starting in 2019, MDRC has partnered with 13 colleges across five states—California, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio—and their state higher education agencies to develop and implement financially sustainable student support programs. Participating states and institutions have aligned SUCCESS programs with existing statewide student success initiatives and focused on specific student populations, such as students from low-income families and students of color. MDRC is conducting a random assignment evaluation, implementation research, and a cost study to understand the effectiveness of SUCCESS. By disseminating the results and providing additional technical assistance, MDRC will support the expansion of SUCCESS within and beyond these initial states and colleges.

If you are interested in learning more, please email Colleen Sommo at [email protected].


Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Graduation rates at community colleges and broad access four-year institutions have remained low for decades, especially for low-income students and students of color. Over the last 15 years, though, MDRC and other researchers have established a rigorous body of evidence about what works in postsecondary education. This research shows that certain approaches (for instance, enhanced advising, financial incentives, encouragement to enroll in summer) can have positive, but modest effects.

The evidence also shows that combining multiple evidence-based interventions into a single extended program can produce substantial improvements in student outcomes. Examples of such programs include Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA), the Dell Scholars program, and One Million Degrees. Most notably, CUNY designed, developed, and implemented its Accelerated Study in Associate’s Programs (ASAP), which was the first to show, through a random assignment evaluation, that comprehensive student support programs could dramatically increase graduation rates. (Institutions interested in replicating CUNY ASAP should reach out to CUNY at [email protected]).

However, scaling comprehensive programs to many colleges has been slower than we’d like, owing in part to resource constraints. SUCCESS is aiming for the sweet spot—by leveraging existing resources to create multifaceted programs at an affordable cost, it may be possible to produce substantial impacts at scale.

All SUCCESS programs provide services to students for two to three years and include the following components:

  • Coaches, supervised by a dedicated SUCCESS program director/manager, who reach out actively to the most at-risk students and meet frequently with them.                            
  • Financial incentives to encourage students to meet with coaches and satisfy other program requirements.
  • Strategies focused on increasing academic momentum (including requiring full-time enrollment and encouraging summer/winter enrollment).
  • A robust management information system that provides real-time data that staff members use to support efficient program management and continuous improvement.
  • A commitment to affordability and sustainability that is realized in part by using and consolidating existing resources.

MDRC works with states and colleges to adapt the model’s components to the local context and align the program with existing initiatives and priorities. States and colleges may also target programs to certain populations, for example, by including cultural components designed to help students of color.

MDRC is deeply committed to creating knowledge to encourage the expansion of SUCCESS beyond its initial states, and to inform that expansion. Through the dissemination of lessons drawn from the project, MDRC aims to build interest and enthusiasm among reform-minded colleges and state policy leaders who want to implement robust, evidence-based initiatives that can be adopted on a large scale and are financially sustainable.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The SUCCESS Demonstration includes a randomized controlled trial (RCT), implementation study, and cost study, as well as scaling and technical assistance work beyond the scope of the experimental evaluation. Ten colleges are participating in the RCT, which will measure the program’s effects on student outcomes, including persistence in school, credit accumulation, and graduation. Rounding out the quantitative evaluation will be a student survey, interviews and focus groups with students, and a cost-effectiveness analysis.

The SUCCESS Demonstration includes a diverse set of states and colleges to ensure that findings are applicable in a variety of contexts and are useful to practitioners. The five selected states allow the team to capture variation in states’ systems of governance, accountability, and funding, as well as geographic, demographic, and political diversity. The team is working with multiple colleges in each state, which will make it possible to include colleges in different types of locations (rural and urban, for example) that are serving different demographic mixes of students or different balances of traditional and nontraditional students.

The ten colleges participating in MDRC’s random assignment study are:

  • California: Bakersfield College
  • Indiana: Ivy Tech Community College Bloomington, Ivy Tech Community College Indianapolis, and Ivy Tech Community College Kokomo Service Areas
  • Minnesota: Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Hennepin Technical College
  • New Jersey: Essex County College and Passaic County Community College
  • Ohio: Owens Community College and Stark State College

MDRC has also partnered with Chaffey College in California and Bemidji State University and Southwest Minnesota State University in Minnesota to launch SUCCESS programs. Chaffey College is aiming to integrate SUCCESS principles into its school-wide programming, and Bemidji State University and Southwest Minnesota State University may join the evaluation in the future.